CCHA Not to Blame
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Last month, in the aftermath of the WCHA poaching Nebraska-Omaha from the CCHA — to join Bemidji State for a new 12-team conference starting next year — many people assumed it was great news for Alabama-Huntsville. Sure, the CCHA would rather not have lost Nebraska-Omaha, but now, it seemed, all the pieces were in place to save the four current CHA teams — which all faced the demise of their conference, and, if they couldn't find a new home, perhaps the demise of their program.
No one wants that, and surely the CCHA would see that, and take on UAH.
But, we wrote at the time, not so fast. From talking to many people inside the CCHA, this was hardly a foregone conclusion. For this, many people criticized us — not believing the CCHA would possibly turn UAH down.
But, now that it has, what's clear then is clear now: The CCHA has many different interests at stake, and acted on those interests just as the other conferences did in "saving" Niagara, Robert Morris and Bemidji State. The CCHA is not the bad guy here. In fact, there really is no bad guy, if you consider the fact that every school, and every conference, has always done what is in its own best interest, and probably always will.
By shooting down UAH's bid — thus putting that program in serious jeopardy — the CCHA comes across as public enemy No. 1 to many college hockey fans. This is unfair.
It's true that college hockey has always enjoyed camaraderie status, and in many ways, the different factions in it do look out for the sport's common interest moreso than you see in other sports. But that has always only gone so far.
Fact is, right or wrong, UAH just never had the support of the CCHA membership as a whole. It's too far away, and given the tough economic conditions facing college athletics right now, it's hard to ask the league members to take them on.
It's been pointed out that Huntsville is approximately the same distance from most CCHA schools as Omaha was. But this leaves out a number of points.
* Omaha had an incredibly strong lease agreement and were selling out a large arena for a couple years before the CCHA took UNO on. I know that UAH people have defended their building, and fan base, and rightfully so. It's indeed true that their fan base is at least equal to the likes of Ferris State. But in comparison to what Omaha brought to the table, there is no comparison. UAH could theoretically get there, as it has suggested, if given the opportunity to play in a prominent conference. But it's not there now.
* Omaha was, and is, in the center of junior hockey in the United States, and represented a major new recruiting area for the CCHA. Certainly, recruiting is growing in areas all around the country that never had Division I players before — but the benefits of adding Omaha don't compare at all to what Alabama could bring.
* The travel distances are similar, but the economics are different now. And while some have suggested that the smaller CCHA schools were the naysayers behind Huntsville, actually, even the Big Ten schools have issues here. The conference, for example, has stressed to its member institutions that Big Ten teams regionalize their non-conference play. Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State are not in the Big Ten in hockey, but their school officials deal directly with the Big Ten otherwise. It's hard for them to justify that added travel during these economic times, given what is being mandated in their other sports.
UAH supporters may debate all of these points, and be frustrated. Understandably. Their program is in serious jeopardy now. That stinks. But the CCHA is no more or less altruistic than any other conference has been. It has to look at the big picture, long term, and did what it thought was best.
You may disagree with the CCHA's reasoning, but let's not say that the CCHA acted any worse or differently than any other conference ever has.
The WCHA didn't just altruistically take Bemidji State. It only did so after it could find a very viable 12th program. It wouldn't have done so otherwise, and even then, Bemidji is right in the heart of WCHA territory. So how is it fair to simply ask the CCHA to take on Alabama-Huntsville for altruistic reasons, a program with much less going for it at the time than Bemidji State?
Few people have done more to foster the college hockey togetherness than CCHA commissioner Tom Anastos. He has worked relentlessly to create a more substantive Commissioner's Group, spearheaded meetings with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, and even tried to reach out to the WCHA to work together on a master plan, and was ignored. So for him to take abuse in this, when he doesn't even have a vote, is even more ridiculous.
People in the CCHA, including Anastos, were among those pushing for NCAA exemptions that would allow the CHA to keep its automatic bid, at a time when it could lose it. These things helped sustain the CHA schools until they could get to this point.
It's also been suggested that the CCHA is just delaying a decision until Bowling Green is on more sound footing. The theory being that, if Bowling Green folds — as had been feared — the CCHA would then play with 10 teams, but doesn't want to add UAH now and lose BGSU, thus being stuck with 11 again. That theory is incorrect. Bowling Green looks solid now, and its situation had no bearing on the UAH decision. As Miami assistant AD Steve Cady said, playing with 11 teams is difficult, but not impossible — the CCHA has done it before, a few different times in its past.
We all know this hurts Alabama-Huntsville, we all know this is a bad situation. Everyone, including people in the CCHA, feels bad for the Chargers. But the CCHA didn't create this mess, it is not obligated to fix it.