Huntsville AD: 'We're Ecstatic'
Acceptance Into WCHA Is Culmination of Hard Work
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
When E.J. Brophy took over as athletic director at Alabama-Huntsville, the hockey program was on the brink of being eliminated. And he was taking over for a popular AD, Jim Harris, who had passed away suddenly from a heart attack.
So after all of that, and all of the scratching and clawing, he's allowed to celebrate a job well done.
Thursday, Alabama-Huntsville was formally accepted into the WCHA, giving the program a home for the future, and the opportunity to pull itself back up from the college hockey basement.
"We're ecstatic. It's a big day for us," Brophy said.
"I've been here 20 months, and the first day I walked in the door, it was a hornets' nest. And it's been a situation here where we've had to dig in and stay the course, and not get caught up in negatives, but reach for every positive. And the bottom line is, when it gets tough, you got to hang in there like a rusty fish hook and continue to fight. And when we got to the end of the rope, we tied a knot and hung on."
Hang on they did. Right to the end. After all that lobbying, Brophy believed the Chargers would be accepted into the WCHA, but until it made its presentation at the WCHA meetings this week, no one knew for sure.
"Over the last 18 months, we've tried to dig in like crazy to tell our story and sell our program to the folks of the WCHA. We kept grinding and grinding," he said. "So coming in today, we did not take it for granted, but we had high hopes. (But) you're never 100 percent sure. There's always wild cards. It's like a presidential election. You know who will win California, you know who will win Texas, but when it comes to Florida, you just don't know."
Brophy said Huntsville met the main sticking points by demonstrating it's a good academic school, it is committed to athletics and hockey, and, being in an off-campus rink, it has priority from the city over scheduling.
It might have been hard for some members to buy into UAH given its struggles on the ice and one-win season to date. But Brophy said most people understand the chicken-egg situation the team is in, unable to get better because of its uncertain future.
"I don't think anyone would've doubted we were fighting with one hand behind our back," Brophy said. "Everyone knows that. And when you get into a swordfight with a spoon, it's hard. And you dig even deeper, last year we made an announcement (about the program being disbanded) and we had one of the top goalies (Clarke Saunders) move on to North Dakota."
The program was ultimately rescued from the chopping block by new president Robert Altenkirch. And now, by the invitation from the WCHA.
"This really put us in a situation where we can recruit better, schedule better, sell tickets better, have better exposure, and all those things that are so important. It's a windfall for us," Brophy said.
Just before the start of this season, Alabama-Huntsville made a surprising coaching change, letting go Chris Luongo and replacing him with respected former AHL coach and NHL scout Kurt Kleinendorst. Many believed the move was made solely to impress WCHA people. Without saying that, Brophy did say having Kleinendorst was big.
"Anyone who knows anything about hockey knows that Kurt Kleinendorst is a top flight coach, an all-American at Providence, a Hobey Baker finalist, nine years in the NHL as a coach and scout, a gold medal with the under-18 team, a championship in the American League," Brophy said. "Everyone knows what a phenomenal coach and person he is. There's no one in the country that will be able to out-X-and-O him. Now he has to get more players.
"When you hire someone as high profile as him, it shows commitment. We were making moves on faith — blind faith — adding staff, adding Kleinendorst, making a commitment to 18 scholarships next year, and all those things. So I do think his hiring was a positive force."
From a commitment standpoint, though, few things were as important as Huntsville's willingness to subsidize the other teams' travel to Alabama. UAH will give a subsidy similar to what the Alaska schools give, details of which need to be hashed out.
"We agreed on a range," Brophy said. "When you want to get in the club, you gotta do what it takes to get in the club. When you wanna dance, you gotta pay the band.
"I can do a lot of things, but I cannot pick up Huntsville and put it in Michigan. And because of that, it's a reasonable request to ask for the subsidy."
As for the future, Brophy hopes the tide can start turning relatively quickly.
"I don't believe in five-year plans or three-year plans," Brophy said. "Whoever we play, we need to beat them. And if we get beat, we need to be mad. I believe in, 'Let's go right now, let's win right now.' It will be very, very hard, but that will be our goal. We know it will be a challenge."