Monday, October 24, 2011

UAH topples the Hockey Capital of the South

I feel as though I've lost a member of my family, or at the most a very good friend. Today, after 32 years in existence, the University of Alabama pulled the plug on the Division I hockey program at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. At the end of the the 2011-2012 season, the Chargers will cease to exist as anything but a club team.

Hockey has been a part of the UAH landscape since its inception in 1979 and the Chargers spent many years as an NCAA Division I team, competing against (and beating) the likes of:

Air Force Academy
Merrimack College
... University of New Hampshire
... Notre Dame
University of Alaska Anchorage
University of Alaska Fairbanks
University of Massachusetts at Lowell
Brown University
Harvard University
Yale University
Providence College
Ohio State University
Bowling Green University
Lake Superior State University
Western Michigan University
Niagra University
West Point

(Thanks to Howie McEachern for this list)

The Chargers may have seemed an anomaly, but they drew attention from the likes of Sports Illustrated and NBC Nightly News, who sent feature reporter Bob Dotson down to investigate "this little southern hockey team," after the Chargers soundly defeated Providence College - on Providence's home ice, no less.

UAH competed at the NCAA Division II level for several years in the mid-to late '90s, bringing the National Championship trophy home to Huntsville in 1996 and 1998. The school even saw the very first Alabama-born player (Jared Ross/UAH 2001-2005) to crack the NHL (with the Philadelphia Flyers).  The guys who donned Charger blue came from everywhere: Massachusetts, Minnesota, Maine, Washington, Canada. The list goes on. Even actor Kurt Russell's son Wyatt (UAH 2007-2008) did a stint with UAH. Every one of these guys brought two things with them: love of hockey and desire to compete at the highest level. That has not changed through the years, no matter how shaky things seemed at times.

In 2009, a group calling itself SAVE UAH HOCKEY launched a massive campaign to keep the program alive, after the CCHA denied UAH's request to join, leaving the Chargers scrambling to find a home in any conference that was undergoing changes. A number of former players, trainers, referees and fans joined the fight to protect what had become an institution - ice hockey in the South - even before teams like the Carolina Hurricanes, Nashville Predators and the team formerly known as the Atlanta Thrashers set up shop.

Just what made hockey so popular in a place more prone to add ice to their tea? Former player and assistant coach Howie McEachern explains it this way on Facebook, "UAH hockey was unique. It had always been an uphill climb, but one worth the trip. We were always the underdog in D1 but thats what made it fun. Imagine if Rudy never played at Notre Dame, or the Jamaican Bobsled team never competed. Sad day for the city and school. I'm gonna miss the reaction I get from people that say, 'They got hockey in Alabama'...........not anymore."

I've tried to write the "nuts and bolts" of what happened, but I'm not very good at that. Today, my friend Cassie forwarded me an article written by Joe Yerdon of PHT & Gross Misconduct websites, which perfectly sums up how I feel, with an added insight of someone who knows the workings of college hockey in a way that I could never comprehend. Just click here to read it. It's really worth the time.

Stu Vitue (L); Jean-Marc "Frenchy" Plante
This afternoon, the guys over at SAVE UAH HOCKEY posted a list of players who donned Charger Blue over the years. I smiled as I recognized many of the names on that list, having attended classes with them, watched them play, developed friendships with several players and married one. Click here to see that list.

I count myself very fortunate to have been part of the UAH hockey experience in the early 90's. As the school's National Anthem singer, I sang at every home game for nearly three seasons. One of the goalies taught me the Canadian Anthem (not correctly, but he meant well). Coach Doug Ross and players he brought to appear on the weekly Coaches' Show that I produced for WAFF-TV taught me about the game, along with my good friend Jay McCain, who was the announcer for two seasons. The Pittsburgh native brought with him the rallying cry that's so familiar to Penguins fans, but with a southern twist: "IT'S A HOCKEY NIGHT IN HUNTSVILLE!" Somehow, it fit.

To the leaders of UAH, the University of Alabama, College Hockey and the NCAA, I say this: Shame on you. You don't know what you've done.

To the UAH Chargers hockey team, I say this: It's been a tremendous ride. Thank you for letting this English Major be a small part of your incredible universe.


  1. Su, thank you. To be fair, we started SUAHH two years ago on August 20, 2009 on the heels of the CCHA's decision to deny UAH entry into the league. These past days, months, and now years spent trying to save the program and get the word out have been a trial to say the very least. To have all that work so callously tossed aside by a man without any understanding of the game and what it means to the Huntsville community has been a knife to the heart of everyone that has loved the boys in blue.

    The news is doubly hard for myself and my family as we now reside miles away from you and thousand away from UAH. We had a personal connection to the team and the staff. Our children were born because of UAH hockey. I had the honor of being a team photographer for three seasons. And along with Geof, and a host of others, I've battled to save the Chargers. And now all of that is over.

    Thank you again for your kind words.

  2. Thank you for commenting here. I will update the story to accurately reflect SUAHH's history. My husband played for the Chargers from 1989-93 and I sang the anghem from 91-93. It truly feels as though we've lost a member of our family.

  3. Thanks, Su -- you've captured what many of us longtime UAH hockey supporters are feeling. I guess what pains me the most is how our own administration, now run by basically outsiders, just didn't seem to care or want to hear how we could make UAH hockey thrive again. And I doubt after this season I -- or hardly anyone in the South -- will care about college hockey going forward, which is a shame in itself.

  4. Thank you for the article Su!!! It captures the emotions that so many of us feel!! I live in Huntsville and I have four boys that all played travel hockey in Huntsville. My oldest son Seph went off to college and is Captain of Auburn's hockey team, my next oldest son Joshua is playing Junior hockey up in Michigan, my third son Mitchell is currently the goalie for the Huntsville Chargers U18 travel hockey team and my youngest son Aaron is a forward on the Bantam travel team. All of their lives have been spent playing the game that they love and the roots of that love and passion for hockey came from watching the UAH Chargers play. My wife went into labor for two of the boys while watching UAH play at the Von Braun Center. For this family, like many others here in Huntsville, this loss is so personal and so painful!!!
    The fabric of hockey in Huntsville was made from a UAH jersey!!!
    Joseph Kestner