The Long Road Home
Alabama-Huntsville is Playing Out Its Final Season
by Scott McLaughlin/CHN Writer
LOWELL, Mass. In 1972, Bob Seger wrote a slow, emotional ballad about life on the road called "Turn the Page." It's a song about long bus trips, repetition and wandering thoughts. Although it's not about a farewell tour, "Turn the Page" would be a fitting theme song for the Alabama-Huntsville Chargers this season.
Barring a miracle reversal of last month's announcement that the program will be disbanded after the season, the Chargers' pair of exhibition games on the last weekend in February will be the last page turned in the book on UAH hockey.
Until then, the Chargers will continue to play out their farewell tour of a season, one filled with plenty to think about as they make 20-hour bus trips to places like North Andover, Mass.; Bemidji, Minn.; and Orono, Maine.
"A 20-hour bus ride, you're gonna be with the guys for a long time," said team captain Curtis DeBruyn after Wednesday's 6-0 loss to Merrimack. "Take this week. You're gonna be with the guys for a good week. That's when you get to enjoy it the most, when you have the best moments. You get to have some fun."
Perhaps it's a good thing, then, that the Chargers get to spend so much time on the road (only 12 of their 33 games this season are at home), because fun hasn't been easy to come by in Huntsville or on the ice. They were already 0-7-1 when then-interim school president Malcolm Portera announced the team's impending death on Oct. 24, and they have now lost all six games they've played since after dropping a 3-0 decision to Massachusetts-Lowell on Friday.
No one would fault the Chargers if they rolled over and gave up on the season. After all, the school's administration has already given up on them. And as college hockey's lone independent, what slim chance they had of earning an at-large berth to the NCAA tournament vanished a handful of losses ago.
There won't be a chance to ride any late-season momentum into a conference tournament. There won't be an opportunity for this young team (18 of its 23 players are freshmen or sophomores) to grow and build toward next season. There aren't even any in-season tournaments in which they could possibly pick up some hardware. In essence, the Chargers have nothing tangible to play for.
But they aren't quitting, as easy and as understandable as that would be.
"I wouldn't say there's nothing to play for," DeBruyn said. "I think the biggest motivator in sports is pride. You're playing for yourself, and you're playing for your friends beside you. You're playing for everything the program's stood for over the last however many years."
Head coach Chris Luongo, the man in charge of keeping the crew of this sinking ship as upbeat as possible, said everything that has happened this season has only brought the team closer together. He acknowledged that a lot of his players are trying to figure out what they're going to do next year — some will transfer and play elsewhere, while others might call it a career and stay at UAH to earn a degree — but he said he can see how hard they're still playing for each other, even if it doesn't show in their record.
He also said they're not making any excuses for that 0-13-1 record. The Chargers expect to win games, and they know they can if they execute better and play hard for a full 60 minutes.
"We don't come out of a game and say, 'Well, for a team that doesn't have anything to play for, that wasn't a bad effort.' That's not an issue," Luongo said. "I know as a coach, I don't put that in the equation. At the end of the day, I'll look back and certainly [not having much to play for] will be a real issue.
"But we haven't offered that up to them, and they haven't asked for that to be offered up as an excuse. Our demands of them are the same as if everything was great at Alabama-Huntsville from a hockey program standpoint. That's the only way to go about our business. That's what we've asked them to do, and that's what they've done."
And that's what the Chargers will continue to do. They'll make one long bus trip after another, staring out windows and playing cards along the way. They'll try to focus on hockey games and block out everything going on around them. They'll put on their blue-and-white Charger jerseys night after night, knowing they won't be doing it again next year. They'll turn the page.