Team of the Week: Alabama-Huntsville
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Whether it be because of an enormous chip on their shoulder, or the inevitable upward swing of a team that's spent two years in single-digit wins and is due to break out — Alabama-Huntsville, no matter how you slice it, is off to a good start.
After winning a combined 11 games in Danton Cole's first two seasons on the job — one year removed from UAH taking Notre Dame to double overtime in the NCAA tournament — the Chargers have won three of their first four games. And those four games are not just against anyone, but against two teams that made the NCAA tournament a year ago.
This past weekend, UAH went on the road to Colorado Springs and swept Air Force. Goalie Cameron Talbot, who stood on his head in splitting two games at Notre Dame the opening weekend, allowed just one even-strength goal in the two games, and a .949 save percentage.
"We saw some pretty good signs (last year)," said Chargers coach Danton Cole. "His work ethic has been outstanding. He had some holes in his game he needed to work on, but slowly chipped away at those one by one. And with his athleticism, we knew, if he could do that, he was going to be a darned good goalie."
Meanwhile, Justin Cseter, a Menomonie, Wis., native, was named CHA Rookie of the Week, as he scored a goal in each game against Air Force.
As anyone following college hockey knows by now, the Alabama-Huntsville program will be left on an island after this season, as the only Division I independent. Its league, College Hockey America, is disbanding. The other programs have found new homes. UAH was rejected in its bid to join the CCHA — which will play next season with 11 teams after losing UNO to the WCHA.
So UAH started its season winning at Notre Dame, one of those CCHA teams responsible for the rejection.
"I think the guys think they are on a little bit of a mission, and if that motivates you in the right way, OK," Cole said.
"It's a fine line. Personally, I think the guys, the way hockey should be played, every time you should have a chip on your shoulder and trying to prove everyone wrong and prove yourself. I played a few years with Randy Carlyle in Winnipeg (in the NHL), and that was something he told us — you're not as good as your last game; in the NHL, you have to prove yourself every night. That's the way guys have to approach the game."
And, of course, playing with a chip on your shoulder can only go so far, if you don't do it wisely, and if you burn yourself out in the process.
"That will carry a little bit, but I hope the guys are on a bigger kind of mission," Cole said. "We're going forward with an independent schedule, and we're going to have to win a lot of games like that if we're goign to make the NCAAs. We have to get as much over .500 as we can, and that can put us in the ballpark. That is our only playoffs."
But if it's not a chip on their shoulder, then perhaps it's simply the dividends of three years in Cole's programs, with a number of players experienced enough now to put it all together.
"We've got a lot of teachers out on the ice," Cole said. "The older guys are good, they know what's expected from a work ethic and execution, and can jump in to the middle of forecheck drill and can tell guys where to go. We're way ahead of last year.
"A team takes on the personality of the coach," added Cole, who certainly had to work for everything he got in the NHL. "At the end of the day, if I could reach into the bag of tricks and get the perfect team, the team needs to be a real pain in the (rear), fight for every inch, be mentally and physically ready to play. If you have that, results can take care of themselves."
Cole, who won a national championship at Michigan State before embarking on a lengthy pro career that included NHL stints in Winnipeg and Tampa Bay, among others, has the help of another NHL/Michigan State vet on his staff — Chris Luongo.
Those guys were used to competing for national titles, being with a program that could attract Hobey Baker Award winners like Kip Miller, and then compete against Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux on a nightly basis.
It's a different animal in Alabama-Huntsville. The sell job is certainly harder, but Cole has not let that frustrate him.
"There's (still) a certain level of excellence that Coach (Ron) Mason taught (at Michigan State)," Cole said. "That's something that, no matter where I am, we try to adhere to. ... It's not as big budget, but we strive for that excellence.
"Our reception (recruiting) has been a little better every year. Guys are seeing some things we're doing. Word gets back that this is a pretty good place to play. If you want to learn to be a pro, you can learn from us. You have to make your case at whatever level. Our education here is an unknown to how good and strong it is."
That will have to serve the program well as it heads the independent route next year.
In the mean time, UAH finally gets a pair of home this weekend, when it plays Western Michigan. Then it's on to the league schedule.
Cole expects his team to compete in the CHA race this year.
"The last two years, we've been out of it early," Cole said. "I'd like to be in the hunt. As long as we're in the game, hunting for first place, you've got a chance. At Christmas, I'd like to see us there, within striking distance, and go into the break feeling good about ourselves."