Alabama-Huntsville Steadily Returning to 'Electric' Days
by Jen Dobias/CHN Reporter
Growing up in Josh Kestner’s house, Friday and Saturday nights were reserved for Alabama-Huntsville hockey.
“The house shut down, and we went out and saw the games,” said Kestner, now a freshman forward for the Chargers. “The (Von Braun Center) was electric. Whether it was a big hit, a goal, everything was loud; it was intense; it was vocal. Fans were into it. That 6,600 (capacity) arena was packed to the rims.”
That was in the 1990s, back when Huntsville won two Division II national championships in three years and was the self-proclaimed “Hockey Capital of the South.” After being elevated to the Division I level in 1998, the Chargers were perennial contenders in the CHA, capturing two tournament titles and two regular-season crowns. In their two NCAA tournament appearances, they held their own with the top-seeded teams, pushing Notre Dame to double overtime in 2007 and falling by one goal to Miami in 2010.
But, in recent years, little has come easy in Huntsville. Three years removed from being disbanded and then reinstated in a two-month window, the UAH hockey team is still deep in the rebuilding process, though it has taken plenty of strides in the right direction this season.
“Huntsville, Alabama, is no stranger to hockey, and UAH is no stranger to winning,” said assistant coach Gavin Morgan, the lone staff member left from when the program was cut. “The tradition speaks for itself. Unfortunately, we ran on hard times. Now, due to the support of our university, we’re starting to rebuild our program to where it was and hopefully a lot farther.”
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Ask anybody in the Huntsville program what they believe was the catalyst for its decline, and they’ll inevitably bring up the time it spent as an independent. From 1999 to 2010, the Chargers enjoyed the stability that comes with being in a conference as charter members of the CHA.
“When I was at Air Force, Bemidji, Huntsville and Niagara were the toast of the CHA,” second-year Huntsville head coach Mike Corbett said. “They were battling it out to go to the NCAA tournament every year.”
Down to only four teams after some members cut their teams and others jumped to more competitive leagues, the CHA men’s division disbanded at the conclusion of the 2009-10 campaign. While the other three squads found new conferences to call home, UAH’s application to join the CCHA was denied in the summer of 2009, leaving the team to navigate the Division I hockey landscape as its lone independent.
“UAH hockey isn’t Notre Dame football,” Corbett said. “Notre Dame doesn’t need a conference; it’s Notre Dame. In hockey, having a conference affiliation is just so important. Recruits identify with a conference, and it automatically shows the stability of a program.”
The challenges of being an independent were amplified at UAH, a school lacking in natural rivals situated far from the center of the college hockey universe. The Chargers struggled to secure home dates and games in January and February, traditionally the heart of conference play. Forced to play a front-loaded schedule and hit the road for 22 of their 32 contests, they limped to a 4-26-2 record only a year removed from their second NCAA tournament appearance in four years.
“As we moved through that, things became tougher, scheduling became tougher, recruiting became tougher,” Morgan said. “Kids wanted to find schools that played for a league championship and had the opportunity to go to the national tournament like they had in 2010.”
As questions were raised about the team’s financial and competitive viability, the whispers that it would be reduced to the club level grew louder. And, in October 2011, interim university president Malcolm Portera told the players and coaches in a closed-door meeting that the 2011-12 season would be UAH’s last in Division I.
“It wasn’t completely out of the blue, but it was still a shock to hear,” said senior forward Craig Pierce, who was a freshman at the time. “It was an awful time for us. We didn’t know what was next or what our plan was going to be for the future. When you sign on to play hockey in college, you think you’re there for four years.”
The coaches and players weren’t the only ones who couldn’t accept Portera’s decision. Before the announcement was made, a grassroots effort raised more than $546,000 in donations to save the team. After, many community members and alumni spoke out against Portera, highlighting that the hockey team was one of the things that made Huntsville unique. As Huntsville Times columnist Mark McCarter wrote at the time, the team “was a rich part of its charm.”
“There was a lot of support from the community, from alumni, from people around campus and around the state, as well as internationally,” Morgan said. “Once our new president, Dr. Bob Altenkirch, was hired, he immediately re-evaluated the situation and decided the tradition and the value of UAH hockey to the university was too great to eliminate.”
But the damage had already been done. Three Chargers opted to transfer at the end of the season, including starting netminder Clarke Saunders, who took his talents to North Dakota. Saunders had seemed poised to follow in the footsteps of UAH standouts Cam Talbot and Scott Munroe, posting an NCAA-best 34 saves per game and a solid .906 save percentage for a team that went 2-28-1 in 2011-12.
“We’ve had a steady stream of goaltending that kept us in a lot of games and been the source of much of the success we’ve had,” said Michael Napier, who worked for Huntsville in the sports information office in the 1990s and now writes for UAHHockey.com. “Clarke was a big loss.”
On the ice, the 2012-13 season was a forgettable one in Huntsville. All three goaltenders who saw action finished with save percentages south of .900. The team’s leading scorer totaled 11 points. Lacking reliable scoring and goaltending, UAH posted a 3-21-1 record, with 11 of its losses coming by four or more goals.
But the Chargers scored the biggest win of their Division I era to date when college hockey’s impending realignment helped them find a new conference to call home. In January 2013, UAH’s application to join the WCHA was accepted by a unanimous vote.
“Getting into the WCHA was the biggest thing for this team,” senior forward Jeff Vanderlugt said. “The rivalries could start because you play the same teams every year. It’s fun to be able to go ... and see your place in the standings. Most of all, it’s fun to just compete for a top spot in the league and for a championship.”
Now in its second season in the WCHA, Huntsville may seem a long way off from competing for anything more than one of the league’s last two playoff spots, even though it’s one of three teams that improved its win total by five or more games this season. But Corbett is confident Huntsville will one day be the toast of the WCHA. The university is dedicated to the team’s success, he said; he doesn’t see it ending up on the chopping block again even in light of what happened to sister school Alabama-Birmingham’s football team.
And, if the Chargers have learned anything over the past three years, it’s how to persevere in the face of all obstacles, including the ones inherent with being a college hockey outlier.
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Morgan likes to call the Chargers “road warriors.” During the season, their sleeper coach becomes their home away from home. Even if you take out the two Alaska teams, which are outliers in their own right, Huntsville is still located an average of nearly 900 miles away from its WCHA opponents, which means bus rides anywhere between 15 to 20 hours.
“That’s life in Chargerville,” Corbett said. “This program, in its Division I era, has always had to travel. Even the old CHA, it was a bunch of teams and there was no footprint and everybody was traveling and jumping on planes.”
Since it’s always been the lay of the land in Huntsville, from the team’s CHA days to its time as an independent, Morgan says the Chargers have “figured out how to travel.” Their sleeper coach is equipped with WiFi and a flat-screen TV. They leave Huntsville in the afternoon so most of their drive is through the night. And, while five of the Chargers’ seven wins came at home, they’ve stayed in most road games, recording three ties and four losses by a single goal.
“My guys are troopers,” Corbett said. “We don’t complain about it. It’s part of the life of being part of our program.”
Acclimating players to life on the road is the easy part. The real challenge is recruiting those players in the first place. Being in the WCHA has made a difference, but Huntsville still lacks the name recognition of northern schools like Minnesota, Boston University and Denver; in fact, standout goaltender Carmine Guerriero didn’t know Huntsville had a team until he was recruited by Corbett in the summer of 2013.
And, though the weather is a clear selling point (while Boston was pummeled with back-to-back blizzards, Huntsville enjoyed highs in the low 60s), many hockey players still want to stay in the north to play.
“Being from Canada, I always thought I’d play in one of the northern states in the U.S.,” said Vanderlugt, who’s from just outside of Toronto. “That’s where hockey’s big.”
But hockey is getting bigger in the south, with elite players more consistently coming out of places like Florida, Georgia and Texas. As the only Division I team in the region, Huntsville is uniquely situated to draw southern-born players who want to stay closer to home. Corbett has already secured verbal commitments from four southerners, one from Florida, two from Georgia and one from Huntsville.
“For me, it was a dream come true to be able to play Division I and be in the south at the same time,” said Pierce, a Roswell, Ga., native and one of three southerners on the 2014-15 roster. “It’s nice to have the Division I team in Huntsville. It’s not like Michigan where you have different colleges and an NHL team within 10 miles of each other. Now that we’re in the WCHA and people are starting to see how well we’re doing, it’s going to start growing and more people from the south are going to want to play here.”
More players, in general, will want to go to Huntsville if the team continues to build on this season’s success. For the senior class, this season has been one of firsts — first win at home over a Division I team, first weekend sweep, first hunt for a playoff berth. And, for the first time in years, the VBC is buzzing.
“We played Northern Michigan the other weekend, and we had roughly 3,500 fans,” Kestner said. “But it was nothing like it used to be. And that just comes with success. The more wins we get, the more people will come to the games. We just have to keep grinding and keep winning.”