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Friday, September 09, 2011

Huntsville's Future in Peril

Alabama-Huntsville, currently college hockey's only Division I independent program, is in imminent danger of being dropped as a varsity sport, unless $500,000 per year can be raised, according to alumni.

The university has not indicated as such, but word has gotten out through alumni that have met with UAH officials.

Alabama-Huntsville is not an independent by choice. After the demise of College Hockey America two years ago, the other schools in the league found new places to play — Robert Morris and Niagara in Atlantic Hockey, and Bemidji State in the WCHA. But Huntsville was denied in a bid to move to the CCHA, and has been an independent ever since.

Even in the rapidly shifting college hockey landscape, which has seen no fewer than 18 schools pledging to shift conferences in 2013-14, there has not been room in the discussion for Alabama-Huntsville. For better or for worse, no league is willing to make the travel commitment necessary to add the Chargers, and they have not been included in any of the talks.

In the only official statement from the school, interim president Malcolm Portera said, "University administrators are conducting an analysis of the Charger athletic department budget to ensure that dollars are wisely spent on our 14 competitive sports programs. Money available to operate an athletic program is scarce, so it's crucial that we manage those dollars prudently."

Perhaps UAH's most prominent hockey alumnus, Jared Ross, who has spent time in the NHL, sent an e-mail to UAH alumni on July 22, asking for pledges to support the program. That e-mail, which said, "the existence of the program is greatly threatened," first alerted the greater community to how imminent the danger is for UAH.

According to reports, a decision could come as early as October.

According to an Internet posting by 2005 UAH hockey alumnus Keith Rowe, the Chargers' coaching staff met with Portera on Aug. 22 to discuss the situation. It was there that Portera informed them that dropping the program was a possibility. Shortly thereafter, assistant coach Mike Warde resigned from his post to accept the same position at Army.

Meanwhile, a fund-raising effort has gotten under way. According to Rowe, the drive is looking to raise $500,000 per year over three years, to give the UAH administration time to create a longer-term plan.

"The knowledge of the imminent danger of losing the program has been insulated to the UAH Hockey Alumni to date," Rowe said. "The reason for this was to make sure we had the correct information — i.e. $500k annually — to convey and to keep the current UAH Charger Hockey players separated from the issue until it was officially stated from University officials."

According to Rowe, nearly $200,000 per year has been raised so far.

Alabama-Huntsville has been an NCAA program for 30 years, first in Division II, where it was national champions in 1996 and 1998. After Division II was dissolved as an NCAA classification for hockey, the Chargers spent one season as a Division I independent before joining the fledgling College Hockey America in 1999-2000.

Through it all, Doug Ross was the program's only coach until he announced his retirement at the end of the 2006-07 season. Ross capped his career by leading UAH to its first Division I NCAA Tournament bid, after it won the CHA tournament championship.

Danton Cole took over as coach for three seasons, until he left as the CHA disbanded. Chris Luongo was named head coach last season, and the team went 4-26-2 in the first season of its return to independent status.

Penn State will join UAH as an independent in 2012-13, though it will spend only one year with that status before becoming part of the new Big Ten hockey conference. There has been recent talk that Notre Dame will choose to become an independent in 2013-14. Both of those schools have much more clout, and much more ability to survive as independents.

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