I don't want to make this entry about me at all, but I do want to take the time to apologize for the massive month-long delays between entries. The fate of this blog is still in the air, but as long as it's here, we want to bring you coverage of any hockey in the southern US and other non-traditional markets.
One impact that the Atlanta Thrashers leaving may have on hockey in Georgia and Alabama is in the collegiate scene. As mentioned before, college ice hockey is not a household name yet, but it has definitely secured a foothold in the south. After the jump is a look at some of Georgia & Alabama's college hockey units and the unique challenges they face.
The UAH Chargers are the only NCAA Division 1 hockey team south of the Mason Dixon line.
When collegiate hockey in the south is mentioned, you usually get one of two possible responses: a head scratch and "huh?" by someone not informed of the teams (like myself, not too long ago) or someone saying "Oh, you mean like the Chargers?"
In a way, The University of Alabama-Huntsville Chargers are considered a vanguard of sorts for the southern hockey scene, living proof that no, ice hockey is not just a gimmick and will catch on with the local population. In 1987, Alabama governor George Wallace declared the Chargers to be the hockey capital of the south, and he definitely had a legitimate case behind it. Two time division II national champions in 1996 and 1998, the Chargers have put together a hockey pedigree and for a very long time was considered the cream of the crop in southern amateur hockey. With multiple professional alumni (Jared Ross, Scott Munroe and Cameron Talbot among others) having stints in the NHL, AHL and KHL, one could make the argument that UAH is a breakthrough success and a key proponent in the growth of southern hockey.
The Chargers made their return to Division I hockey in 1999, where it became evident that issues unique to the university and hockey in the south in general. As a recently started program, the Chargers had to compete with teams like Bemidji State, who possessed a hockey program dating back to 1946. Nonetheless, UAH found themselves College Hockey America champions in 2007 and its final season in 2010. In 2007 the Chargers fell to Notre Dame in double overtime and 1-2 to Miami (OH) in 2010, leaving them winless in the National Championship tournament. One of the troubles facing the team is that UAH is not a "sexy" choice for college-bound players to go to: only two players on the current roster are from the USHL, considered the United States' "tier 1" junior league.
The other major problem is that the Chargers are the only team without a conference affiliation going into the 2011-12 season. As the sole independent in NCAA division I ice hockey, the uncertainty surrounding the future of the program impacts heavily on recruiting, which further impacts the ability to compete at a high level. In addition, the Chargers play 18 of their 30 upcoming games on the road. The program is in serious limbo and is hoping to score an affiliation with the upcoming Big Ten expansion to ice hockey.
"How that plays out is the 800-pound gorilla in the room," UAH head coach Chris Luongo told radio interviewers in January. "It will represent some [upheavals] all over college hockey."
The former NHL defenseman with 218 career games played wants to spread the game of hockey in Alabama, but realizes that without a conference deal it will be extremely hard to continue competing. Joining the rumored 24-team Big Ten conference would ensure that, among the WCHA merger, UAH would find itself in one of the four six-team divisions encompassing the proposed collegiate superleague.
"We don't plan on going anywhere," UAH athletic director Antoine Bell said in an interview with the Colorado Springs Gazette. "It's a traditional program here and we plan to keep it going."
For the good of the sport, it's imperative that they do.