Huntsville Pins Hopes on Upcoming WCHA Meeting
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Members of the new-look WCHA will meet next week in Detroit, and one of the main topics on the agenda will be Alabama-Huntsville.
Beginning next season, 2013-14, and following the machinations of last offseason, the WCHA will drastically change, with teams leaving for the Big Ten and NCHC, and others coming from the CCHA to form a nine-team conference.
Meanwhile, Alabama-Huntsville, a program pulled from the grave recently but still in need of help, will be the only independent and needs a home.
The WCHA is lining up as UAH's only option, and getting a 10th team is appealing to the league. But UAH faces the usual hurdles — questions over facility, commitment and distance.
"We're not making any bones about it — we're committed to Division I hockey and trying to get in a hockey conference," UAH athletic director E.J. Brophy said.
Brophy and other officials from Alabama-Huntsville had meetings with numerous interested parties at the April coaches convention in Naples, Fla., and the recent Frozen Four. Brophy believes the lobbying efforts were successful to a point, but no one has committed to bringing in UAH yet.
"We are discussing things with them. I'd put it as unofficial," WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod said. "I've met with (coach) Chris (Luongo), their president, E.J. (Brophy). We've discussed the process and what it would take. They did not officially apply, and we didn't ask them to. We wanted to find out how we learn more about one another, and how do we get a good feel for their commitment, where they're at with their building, and so on."
What UAH wanted to make clear to everyone else was that the school was committed to the program, something that was not apparent just a few short months ago. Not only has the school stated its commitment, it's putting its money where its mouth is.
The school has agreed to commit $650,000 to the annual hockey budget, which is approximately 43 percent of the median D-I budget. The rest will need to come from ticket sales, corporate sponsors and donors. And the city just did a $15 million renovation to the Von Braun Center, where the Chargers play.
"Just the message center and PA alone were a million bucks," Brophy said. "If that doesn't say commitment, I don't know what does."
And Brophy believes the distance issues are overblown.
"San Diego State just joined the Big East, so maps go out the window," Brophy said. "When you have leagues out there that have two schools in Alaska, I don't know if the geography argument will hold water like the old days.
"A lot of people think Huntsville is Key West. Bowling Green came, it took them (nine) hours on bus. Ohio State, it took them eight hours. When you compare that to somebody in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan having to drive to Detroit on Wednesday and fly to Alaska, miss classes, then fly back Sunday and be half dead to get to class Monday — I don't think the geography matters."
But the fact remains that UAH has some hurdles to climb.
Clearly the Big Ten, NCHC, ECAC and Hockey East aren't going to take them in. Some have suggested that Atlantic Hockey could work, but sources indicate that there is no chance the league would agree to that given the finances involved.
That leaves the WCHA as the only option.
"We want a good feel about a program, to know what it takes to run a top quality program," McLeod said. "I don't think (economics) is as much an issue. The schools in our league, they're used to that as part of business for them. So that's a point of discussion, but it's not a major source."
Said Brophy, "I would think any conference in America would want any program with a viable tradition, a tremendous academic reputation, top tier academically," Brophy said. "We've been playing hockey 33 years, have five national championships, we have countless fans through the turnstiles."
Brophy said that subsidizing travel for opponents is still an option.
"We're considering everything, because we're the ones that want to get in the club," Brophy said. "(But) some people think Huntsville is all the way down in Cuba. It's just not as far as you might think from certain schools."
From a practical standpoint, Brophy believes his program also finalizes the chaotic conference realignment from the last few years, by handing WCHA an even amount of teams.
"People can always find an excuse not to do something," Brophy said. "You can find an excuse not to get married, have kids, go to the movies. The bottom line is, everyone I've talked to said that from a scheduling standpoint, with the 59 Division I teams, it makes good solid common horse-sense for Huntsville to be in a league. Ater all the dominoes have fallen, to finally solidify the scheduling ... because without Huntsville, the scheduling is not quite finalized.
"Once we land in a league, it will settle all of that."
McLeod said a 10th team would be nice, "if you can make it work. You can operate with nine. You can do it. It's definitely harder."
Brophy said the program can possibly exist without a conference, but knows that it will be difficult.
"We must find a conference home or else it's next to impossible to function," Brophy said. "With our geographical situation, it would not be the best thing in the world to stay an independent."