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Commentary: More Than Meets The Eye in CCHA’s Huntsville Decision

The CCHA told Alabama-Huntsville to point its charge toward respectability elsewhere. That’s interesting.

More than a few former college coaches (now coaching professionally) have mentioned on many occasions that the appearance given by the college hockey world is that there is no urgency to grow Division I college hockey. Yes, there are Web sites and campaigns to keep elite-level American hockey players out of Canadian Major Junior and in U.S. college programs. While we all know there was more to this decision by the CCHA to exclude Alabama-Huntsville than meets the eye, you do have to openly wonder about the growth of the sport at the NCAA Division I level.

Don’t mistake this as an open campaign for the Chargers to be in one of the Big Four conferences. When you take a look at the program you do have cause for optimism as a CCHA team. You have a CCHA alum in Danton Cole as the head coach — a guy who played at Michigan State under college hockey’s all-time wins leader, Ron Mason, and was a member of the 1986 national title team.

The guy has a Stanley Cup ring as a player with the New Jersey Devils. How many college hockey programs boast a bench boss with those credentials? To review for a moment, a national title ring in college, playing for an elite NCAA program, playing in the NHL, winning a Stanley Cup. Say what you want about Massachusetts, but it has an assistant in Red Gendron who also has a Devils Stanley Cup ring, and that just lends credibility to your program, folks.

Not that any of that makes you a good coach, but Cole is currently with USA Hockey coaching the Under-18 select team at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tourney in Slovakia. That lends credibility.

Travel was put out there as a possible reason why UAH was excluded. Jim Connelly, my colleague from Boston, described the travel as being no worse than it was to Omaha and just as demanding as going to Alaska.

You want to ask if Huntsville will draw fans at the arenas of the big CCHA programs?

Michigan would sell out if it was playing St. Norbert. That is just a rabid fan base that loves its team. Notre Dame is turning away people at the doors every night due to its resurgence and it actually has a history with Huntsville from their epic double-overtime win in the NCAA tournament a couple of years ago.

Miami loves its hockey and that building filled up on a freezing cold Saturday night against Bowling Green last season. Ohio State has its share of attendance challenges with the big building but it is supportive especially as the season winds down and hockey becomes more prominent on the sports calendar. Michigan State has had some attendance issues lately, but will Huntsville attract less fans than Western or Lake State?

Huntsville is actually an interesting hockey market. During my time as an assistant coach in the Central Hockey League, the Huntsville Channel Cats played to very full buildings. The fact that they had a good squad reminiscent of the Charlestown Chiefs didn’t hurt but they were a good franchise that won titles at the single A level (Southern Hockey League) and the AA level (Central League). The year they won the SHL title the Chargers won the Division II national title and Huntsville branded itself the “Hockey Capital of the South.”

The Von Braun Center is a great building for hockey and in the CCHA it would be in the upper echelon of facilities. Being in the CCHA would help recruiting as it offers a nice campus, good facilities and a strong tradition similar to Bemidji State at the D-II and D-III level. I wonder if some of the more remote schools in the CCHA expressed concern in that area.

It would make sense and if I coached at Northern Michigan or Ferris State I’d be worried that a potential recruit might say he’d rather leave the rink in February when its only 40 degrees in Alabama as opposed to walking out into the Marquette or Big Rapids night air where it’s minus-10 with a foot of snow. How could that thought not cross your mind? Then again if you are Michigan or Miami or Northern Michigan (which keeps finding its way into the CCHA’s final four) do you worry about a kid you are recruiting for a third-line role his freshman year who decides he’ll get first-line minutes at Huntsville a lot faster with a little less depth on the roster. Also food for thought.

Look at the changing landscape of college football. With all due respect, the Big Ten has suffered as a football conference and the SEC and Big 12 have become elite conferences because they offer warm weather all season, a chance for a passing QB to show off his arm in great weather conditions, and play wide open offensive styles because they don’t have to deal with snow, high winds and biting cold. Northern kids are going south to play. Or west — USC’s resurgence isn’t an accident either. Good weather makes for a long fall, a nice winter semester and an early spring.

The real issue here is growth; the other issues are just speculation. If Huntsville goes the way of Iona, Fairfield, Kent State, Findlay and Wayne State, it is another program at the Division I level that will never return, and that means 25-28 less roster spots for American kids wanting to play college hockey.

Or do we look at it like we do GM, Chrysler and Ford? All three struggled for various reasons and only Ford seems to have found itself. We live in a capitalist society of survival of the fittest, and if the market of Huntsville, Ala., isn’t fit to survive in the landscape of Division I college hockey, maybe it is best for the overall good of the game to let it slide back to D-III. That is for Bruce McLeod, Tom Anastos, Steve Hagwell, Joe Bertagna and the rest of the NCAA folks who govern college hockey to decide.

The International Hockey League was a great AAA league in the 1990s — it was in awesome markets and was like a mini NHL the way it was run. However, it grew way too fast into markets that couldn’t support it and eventually, like the old World Hockey Association, it folded and saw some of its teams merge into its rival league, in this case the American Hockey League.

The CHA also is departing but its member clubs like Bemidji, Robert Morris and Niagara are all safe. They are also in conferences that geographically work for them to create natural rivalries. Bemidji should thrive as the fifth WCHA team in Minnesota and have a great rivalry with Michigan Tech and North Dakota.

So what happens to Huntsville?

It seems odd that a team whose nickname is also a model of car would be excluded from a league run out of Detroit. Looks like the Alabama-Huntsville Chargers will go the way of the Dodge Charger.

South.


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