College hockey’s sweeping realignment left little room for feel-good stories in its wake, but that changed Thursday. With a unanimous vote, the Western Collegiate Hockey Association granted full membership to the University of Alabama-Huntsville men’s hockey team starting in 2013-14, saving the program from near-certain death.
With so much of the recent maneuvering in college hockey tied to money, this is a move that was not an obvious one for the WCHA, which will have to find a new identity starting next season. Having lost all of its big-name programs in realignment, the WCHA has gone from elite status to mid-major. Adding a program so far from its geographic footprint (though both Alaska schools are also quite far) was a decision that caused much deliberation over months and probably years. However, it was a decision that meant life or death for Alabama-Huntsville.
The Chargers had played the last three years as an independent after the College Hockey America conference dried up and the CCHA denied UAH membership soon thereafter. The program was essentially shut down by the chancellor of Alabama universities before fundraising efforts preserved the team just last year. On life support, without a conference to call home and a way to guarantee home games and give recruits a reason for signing on with the program, UAH was at the mercy of the WCHA. Had it not been approved for membership, there really wasn’t any realistic scenario in which the hockey program could survive at the Division I level.
The WCHA has been lauded, and rightly so, for making this decision and the fact that “it’s the right thing to do,” but it is a decision not without risk in the still highly uncertain future of realignment. Whether the WCHA added UAH or not, what comes next for the conference is still up in the air.
There was some doubt for a time if the WCHA would do the right thing. After realignment benefited the richer programs in college hockey, some of the smaller schools were left wondering what would come next. The CCHA folded, with the remaining teams merging into a new WCHA. It became essentially the “leftover” or “left-behind” conference. As a result, there’s less potential for the conference to strike lucrative TV deals and will undoubtedly make less money on the conference tournament semifinals. The lower earning potential of the league is what makes Huntsville a bit of a risk.
However, UAH did what it had to do to make sure that the finances weren’t going to be the barrier keeping them from the conference. The Chargers will offer travel subsidies to teams traveling to Huntsville making the trip more manageable. The deal is reportedly similar to that currently offered by the Alaska schools.
The WCHA nearly had its schedule complete for next season before adding UAH, so there may be some challenges to get the Chargers a complete WCHA schedule next season, but it will be eligible for the conference tournament.
The big question remaining for the new WCHA is where it goes from here. After being the class of college hockey for so long with programs like Minnsota, Wisconsin and North Dakota bringing in large fan bases and exposure, the league may suffer from a temporary identity crisis. There is no reason to believe the WCHA can’t manage as a mid-major conference, but making that adjustment for conference leadership could be tough to navigate.
With UAH, the WCHA now has ten teams. Every team in the country now has a conference. So is realignment finally reached its conclusion? Well, for now, yes. There’s probably more room for growth now, which is a positive. Most importantly however, realignment hasn’t cost college hockey any Division I programs… yet.
There is still going to be a lot of questions in the new WCHA. One big one is, will fans stay interested and keep coming back? Smaller schools will have a better chance to compete for spots in the NCAA tournament and conference championships, but will that be better than in-conference games against big-name opponents?
Attendance is already fairly low for the 10 teams that will make up the WCHA starting next year, with Minnesota State drawing the most fans this season to date with an average attendance of 3,488. It ranks 22nd in all of college hockey. Ferris State has been the best at filling its building averaging crowds at 80 percent of its capacity (2,490). When traditional rivalries and semi-annual visits from the big programs go away, hopefully fans won’t, too.
Ticket sales isn’t the only thing keeping these teams afloat, but it is a revenue stream the teams will need. The second the realignment dominoes started falling, the concern for the smaller programs was kicked into high gear. It’s going to take a lot of work from these schools and athletics departments to ensure the long-term viability of their hockey programs and the WCHA.
Getting back to UAH and this monumental day for its hockey program…
UAH and the people that fought to keep that program alive deserve a lot of credit. It was an absolute battle to get to this point, so hopefully they celebrated last night and make the most of this weekend.
Not to throw a wet blanket on the celebration, the battle will continue and it’s going to require a lot of patience throughout these next few seasons. The amount of money the school is going to have to commit to being a serviceable program in the new college hockey landscape is immense.
That said, UAH has new life. For as long as it’s been a Division I program, the odds have been stacked against the Chargers. The only program south of the Mason-Dixon Line in college hockey doesn’t seem like it should work, but due to the dedication of those who work within the program and the fans and alumni that have passionately supported it, it does. Over the last three years, however, it hasn’t been able to work to its full extent.
In the last three seasons as an independent, UAH has won a total of nine games (including three in this half season). UAH only played two home games against a Division I opponent this year and only has four games remaining after the program had to throw together a schedule when it became clear the program would survive at least this season. It’s tough to build fan interest and support with a schedule like that. Getting a conference, where teams are required to travel to Huntsville is huge.
The Chargers will have a chance to build rivalries and get a steady enough stream of home games to remain in the local sports consciousness and hopefully keep fans coming back in larger numbers. It can happen. In UAH’s Division I home-opener, 5,106 people showed up to the 7,0000-seat Von Braun Center. Imagine what next year’s home-opener could be like with something more to play for.
Recruiting has been a near impossibility with the uncertainty facing the program. The opportunity for players to play for a conference championship, renew and build rivalries within the WCHA and play a steady number of home games annually is a game changer. There will always be challenges facing UAH in the recruiting department, but the schedule and potential to play for championships is no longer one of them.
Joining the WCHA finally allows UAH to realize its full potential as a program, something its never really had the chance to do, not even when it was part of College Hockey America. There’s really no telling what is possible for this hockey team since its never really had a chance like this.
The program will get better. It might not happen right away, but UAH will get better and become a competitive program in the newfangled WCHA. It’s going to require a lot more work and a lot of patience, but it will get there one day.
In the wake of realignment, the WCHA school presidents and athletic directors had a pretty good idea of what it felt like to be left behind. They could have left UAH out and moved on, but having made the statements so many of them did when they were on the wrong end of things, there was no room for hypocrisy. It wasn’t an easy decision, but it was the right one. Collectively, they have to make it count for the good of the conference and the good of college hockey as a whole.