CCHA Faces Difficult Choice in Alabama Expansion Bid
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Alabama-Huntsville has formally applied to membership into the CCHA. And while it has an uphill climb, the CCHA is at least listening.
UAH sent its application in earlier this week, along with the requisite application fee. After waiting as long as it could to see if College Hockey America, its current conference, would hold together, UAH officials knew the league was gone for good as the departure of Niagara and Robert Morris to Atlantic Hockey became imminent.
"(UAH) called and said they were interested in finding out about that process. So I sent them the information," CCHA commissioner Tom Anastos said. "So he sent me some questions (back), and I responded, and just this week, in fact yesterday, we received a letter of application."
The CCHA is far from ready to accept UAH as a member, but at the very least, the league created an application process approximately a year ago, in anticipation of this very possibility.
"We don't want people to think we put the process in place because we were planning to expand," Anastos said. "We just thought that we needed to be prepared for a process in the event the CHA does collapse. We were anticipating we would be approached by somebody."
In recent months, Harris invited Anastos down to Huntsville, and Anastos said he went there to help guide them on the process and answer questions. But it didn't go beyond that.
The application leaves a window of hope, but realistically Alabama-Huntsville faces an uphill climb to gain acceptance into the league.
For one, there is major reluctance to increase beyond 12 teams. It is possible that a team — say, Northern Michigan, which is at least pondering the idea — may move to the WCHA. But even if that happens, geographical concerns — particularly in this tight economy — would make the CCHA members reluctant to embrace UAH's bid.
"Our league is sensitive to the issue," Anastos said. "We'll take it very seriously."
The question becomes, what will the Chargers do if they can't gain acceptance into the CCHA? (It also sent a letter of inquiry to the WCHA, Harris said.)
Responding to an e-mail inquiry from WCHA writer Virg Foss, Harris suggested that without acceptance to another conference, Chargers hockey would be no more.
"It is not our intent to ever give up on Division I hockey until higher authorities tell us we can’t play in any of their leagues," Harris said. "I hope that will never happen. I believe UAH has a lot to offer college hockey as well what hockey has to offer UAH."
Anastos and his CCHA colleagues are in a difficult situation. Originally, the "Big 4" conferences wanted to hold their membership steady, so as to encourage schools to join College Hockey America, and keep that conference viable so it would always be a home for new programs.
But as the CHA became more and more impossible to prop up, the "Big 4" conference's have the opposite problem. If they hold steady on membership, they are actually hurting the sport, because some more programs may have to fold.
But admitting new schools to major conferences, is not something those conferences want to necessarily do just to be charitable. Further, by doing so, it becomes a major catch-22 — in that it makes it almost impossible for a single school to decide to start hockey.
The only solution would be to convince a large multi-sport conference to have at least six teams start Division I hockey at the same time. A much more difficult proposition.
"What really didn't exist — not that it's easy — there was no relentless coordinated effort to try to figure out a way to go entice schools to consider joining," Anastos said. "The CHA talked to some schools that became apparent they were considering it — but I mean literally going school to school — or going to an all-sport conference and presenting information and studies showing them what a successful hockey program can do economically.
"(Now) the task at hand is much more difficult.
"Every school today is looking for new sources of revenue. If you're in the right markets, it can happen. The growth in the 90s in hockey, it was vulnerable because most programs that were created didn't create revenue. So it's nice to have numbers, but the economic reality is, we have to find places to go where it's a good likelihood it will generate revenue."