I should be in the pool right now, enjoying the Las Vegas heat and my vacation.
But I’m not.
Instead, I’m sitting at my sister’s kitchen table, fuming as I read about the CCHA’s decision to turn down UAH’s request to join. In our current economic climate, this pretty much sounds the death knell on the University of Alabama–Huntsville’s hockey program. Why is it so upsetting that a school I haven’t set foot in since I left Huntsville in 1995, could lose its hockey program? The answer has many layers. But, let’s begin with the history of ice hockey at the University of Alabama-Huntsville.
The Chargers began as a club team in 1979 and joined the Southern Collegiate Hockey Association. Under Head Coach Joe Ritch, they won the SCHA championship in their inaugural year and went on to more success over the next few seasons. Doug Ross came on board as Head Coach in the 1982-83 season, bringing a history of stellar play, including a stint on the 1976 US Olympic Hockey team. UAH joined the Central States Hockey League for several years, before becoming an Independent program. The Chargers made national headlines in 1992, capturing the attention of “NBC Nightly News” after thrashing Providence College up in Rhode Island. Reporter Bob Dotson visited Huntsville attended a UAH practice. Sports Illustrated also covered the Chargers in 1993. Here’s the link: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1138396/index.htm
At the start of the 1992-93 season, UAH moved to Division II, still as an Independent and continued to rock the ice, capturing the NCAA Division II Championship 3 times in 5 years. A move back into the Division I ranks as part of College Hockey America (CHA) conference, brought even more accolades. The Chargers finished as either CHA Champions or runners up for six seasons and made the NCAA Tournament in 2006-2007 (they fell to Notre Dame in the first round). Coach Ross retired after that stellar season, following 25 years behind the bench. Danton Cole took over, and the team looked ahead to a bright future, after nailing down the right to host the 2012 “Frozen Four” tournament in Tampa.
Now, to my history with UAH.
I saw my first hockey game in 1986. Rangers vs. Islanders at Madison Square Garden. It was exciting, but didn’t really hook me. I started watching the Pittsburgh Penguins in the late 80’s because I enjoyed watching Mario Lemieux play. But I didn’t become a TRUE hockey fan until I enrolled at the University of Alabama-Huntsville in 1990. At first, I attended games because I considered ice hockey in Alabama a kind of novelty. Then, my friend Jay McCain became the Charger’s announcer and tried to copy some of his idol Mike Lange’s calls for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Pretty soon, the phrase, “It’s a hockey night in Huntsville!” bellowed in Jay’s baritone, became as much a part of game night as the opening strains of the Chargers’ longtime theme song, “Sweet Home, Alabama.” (To this day, I can’t hear that song without being transported back to the Von Braun Civic Center, where icy air mixed with the swish of skates and the sound of sticks slapping pucks into the wall or clanging off crossbars).
At the time, I produced a UAH coach’s show for the local NBC TV station. Every Sunday evening, Coach Doug Ross showed up at the station with a player in tow, along with coaches and players from other UAH sports teams. Sports anchor Barry Hiett would sit across from them and chat about that week’s matchups and look ahead to the next weekend’s games. Around the same time, I also became the school’s official National Anthem singer, which meant I had to attend every home game. Jay taught me about the basics of hockey. The players I met while producing the coaches’ show filled in more details.
When I was there, the players came from everywhere BUT Alabama. There was Jean-Marc Plante ("Frenchy") from Quebec. Howie McEachern from Massachusetts. Shane Prestegard from Calgary. Graham Fair, Logan Lampert, Dennis Skapski, Don Burke, Byran Moller and Lance West from British Columbia. Stu Vitue from Washington State. Sean Kelly, Randy Resek and Derek Puppa from Ontario. Don Rugg from Michigan. Kelly Krawchuk from Saskatchewan. Curt Krolak from Illinois. Ryan Wood from Manitoba. Jim Goonan from New York. Don Erbach from Iowa. I could go on, but you get the picture. These guys played their youth hockey in a myriad of places, including the BCHL and USHL. Many already knew each other when they got to school, from playing against each other at as kids and juniors.
Ask anyone who’s laced up the skates for UAH and they’ll tell you, they came to school to PLAY and to WIN. The only thing different between UAH and Division I rivals like Providence College, or RPI, or even University of Alaska-Anchorage was their location. If you doubt that, take another look at the Chargers’ record a few paragraphs up.
Go ahead. I’ll wait.
Did you re-read that paragraph? Then you don’t need me to tell you again that these guys DO hit the ice at the Von Braun Civic Center ready to WIN. And don’t even think about writing these guys off as having no chance to crack the pros. As a matter of fact, the first UAH alum to make it to the NHL level was actually born and raised in HUNTSVILLE. Coach Ross’ son Jared wrapped up a pretty impressive season split between the Philadelphia Flyers and their AHL affiliate, the Philadelphia Phantoms. He was also named the AHL All Star Game’s Most Valuable Player. Jared played all four years at UAH under his dad, graduating in 2005. Charger teammate, goalie Scott Munroe also spent the last 4 seasons backstopping the Phantoms, and played one game last season with the Flyers. Munroe, by the way, is from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.
Which brings us back to the CCHA’s decision to turn down UAH’s request to join its conference. The CCHA didn’t officially give a reason for denying the request, but the stuff I’ve heard behind the scenes is about as far-fetched as the excuses my son gives for not brushing his teeth or doing his homework.
It sickens me to think that after more than two decades, the University of Alabama faces a future without ice hockey. Some people have said to me, “What’s the big deal? They can just go back to being an Independent, right?” This time, I don’t think that it’s an option. I’m not 100% sure, because I have not spoken with the Athletic Director or the school’s President, but the general feeling is that unless another conference steps up to invite the Chargers into its fold, the team will cease to exist, at least at a competitive level. That will mean no scholarships to recruit the diverse array of players who have converged on Huntsville for the past two decades. No championship cups to raise or national stories to boast about. No chants of, “It’s a hockey night in Huntsville!” And no more “Sweet Home, Alabama” echoing off the walls of the VBCC.
There’s another reason that the thought of hockey leaving UAH for good causes me so much pain and anger. When I served as the school’s National Anthem singer and produced the UAH Coaches’ show, I became friends with a Center named Stu Vitue. Stu and I got married in 1995 and just celebrated our 14th anniversary. I’m sure other former Chargers will tell you the same story about meeting their future wives at UAH.
Like many hockey programs around the world, UAH developed more than players. The school turned out some amazing guys who have gone on to have amazing careers. And even though their work may not involve hockey, it’s still part of their lives. Some players remained after they graduated, to help behind the bench; guys like Howie McEachern, Kelly Krawchuk and Lance West. Dino Ferrante helped out while attending medical school. Jean-Marc Plante (“Frenchy”) returned to UAH following stints with a number of minor league hockey teams. He joined the athletic staff and helped coach youth hockey until he passed away suddenly in 2001 at the age of 31. Nearly all of his teammates returned to Huntsville to pay their respects. The family and the school teamed up to offer a memorial scholarship in his name and stage a yearly golf tournament fundraiser.
The UAH Chargers will enter their 25th season this fall, uncertain of what the future holds. But when you walk into the Von Braun Civic Center on a Friday or Saturday night and hear Ronnie van Zant’s voice say, “Turn it up,” followed by that famous guitar lick, you can bet on one thing: the Chargers will hit the ice, ready to play, and ready to win.