Could College Hockey Expand Through Atlantic Hockey Association?

The Atlantic Hockey Association doesn’t always get a lot of respect around college hockey as a conference. If you were to rank the five conferences, AHA would come in fifth, but it is of vast importance and has played a significant role in the college hockey landscape.

Though Atlantic Hockey is home to mostly smaller schools with names that don’t resonate as well with a national audience, the conference has allowed college hockey’s footprint to extend to markets where there are voids, particularly in hockey hotspots like the Pittsburgh and Buffalo areas.

Atlantic Hockey’s somewhat relaxed standards for inclusion in the conference might be lower than those of the big conferences, but as such become less prohibitive.

AHA has been a stepping stool for some teams like Quinnipiac and as of 2014-15, UConn, but more than anything else, it’s created an important opportunity for others. Without the burden of minimum scholarships and looser arena requirements, Atlantic Hockey has become a place where universities big and small can play Division I hockey.

Based on a USCHO report from Chris Lerch, Atlantic Hockey could be on the verge of landing another team looking for an intro to Division I.

Lerch spoke with AHA commissioner Bob DeGregorio who revealed he would like to stay a 12-team conference even after UConn departs for hockey east after the 2013-14 season. That’s no surprise, but DeGregorio did one better by revealing that the conference has spoken with four schools that have expressed interest in possibly joining Atlantic Hockey.

Three of those schools do not currently field a Division I team. They include St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., the University of Rhode Island and the U.S. Naval Academy.

None are sure shots to add hockey, but having the conversation is important. There are fewer financial roadblocks when entering through Atlantic Hockey, which has to be appealing.

The other school speaking with Atlantic Hockey is Alabama-Huntsville, which has been struggling the last few years as a Division I independent, nearly getting shuttered after last season. The Chargers are looking for a conference to stabilize its future.

Though strong conferences were raided in the midst of last summer’s realignment, Atlantic Hockey went mostly untouched. That was until earlier this year when UConn decided to pony up the money necessary to become part of Hockey East.

The big changes to the college hockey landscape could go one of two ways. Either there will be a trail of insolvent programs littering depleted conferences, namely the WCHA, or the holes created by the changes could lead to new programs sprouting up.

As an outside observer, I thought if expansion would come, it would likely be through the Big Ten, which has a chance to create another revenue stream with adding hockey. Depending on Penn State’s foray into the Division I ranks and how that program is able to grow, it could inspire other programs to be built within the conference. Any change could be many years in the distance.

In reality though, the path to expansion could start with Atlantic Hockey, thanks to the lesser financial hurdles.

While both St. Anselm and Rhode Island would be terrific additions to the Division I ranks, Navy seems to make the most sense for the conference and would likely be the biggest “impact addition.”

McMullen Arena at the U.S. Naval Academy (via usna.edu)

Atlantic Hockey is already home to the Air Force Academy and U.S. Military Academy at West Point, so there’s the natural fit to have all the service academies as conference foes. Navy, which fields a club-level team in the American Collegiate Hockey Association, already has a rink on campus, albeit tiny by Division I standards, but not necessarily prohibitive.

A program at Navy extends college hockey’s footprint down the Atlantic Coast and nestles it near the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., media markets.

It makes all the sense in the world, but according to DeGregorio, the athletics department in Annapolis is focused on building towards its football team’s joining the Big East in 2015. Depending on how that goes, the infrastructure is already there essentially to make hockey a reality.

Anytime you talk about expansion anymore, Navy should come up. There are plenty of incentives for all parties for this to happen, so there’s a real possibility here.

Getting back to Alabama-Huntsville, Atlantic Hockey will have a spot for the Chargers, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best fit. Judging by the way DeGregorio phrased things to Lerch, it kind of sounds like he doesn’t think so either.

“They are focused on the WCHA right now and I think they would be a very good fit there. It’s important to college hockey that this program continue.”

It sounds a little bit like DeGregorio is admonishing the WCHA to bite that bullet.

Then there was this tweet from College Hockey News

That’s a little disappointing to hear, but at the same time it makes some amount of sense. The hockey budgets are relatively small in Atlantic Hockey and annual trips to Alabama would continue stretching those budgets thin.

This season UAH had one home series against a Division I opponent and there won’t be any more. One. Tough to generate gate revenue when you’re never home.

It needs a conference to bring in those home games. Whether its Atlantic Hockey or the WCHA is somewhat irrelevant to the Chargers. However, as realignment takes hold, neither Atlantic Hockey, nor the WCHA may be in a position to take on the Chargers.

DeGregorio is right about one thing. College hockey’s southernmost team is important. It shouldn’t work, but through a commitment from the university and the community, it’s remained. A conference could make it thrive, which would only open the door for more expansion down the road. Without the conferences, however, it is unlikely the team would be sustainable and down goes realignment’s first victim.

College Hockey, Inc., has been active in reaching out to schools in regards to expansion. Should realignment bring about new college teams, it only helps the entire game grow, which helps everyone in the end.

It creates more opportunities for players, a chance to attract a larger population of fans and gives college hockey more of a foothold in the national sports landscape.

It is going to take years, perhaps many years to properly survey the success, or lack thereof, of the forthcoming realignment  Expansion could go nowhere, but there are opportunities now that didn’t exist before, which makes it awfully exciting. Hopefully there are more births than deaths, but only time will tell.

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About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
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One Response to Could College Hockey Expand Through Atlantic Hockey Association?

  1. Marshall Spencer says:

    Great article! I’m a lifelong WCHA fan – go Bulldogs! – and I am very interested in seeing college hockey grow in tbe South. I hope UAH can find home conference before it’s too late. I live 2 hours from Huntsville.

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