The more things have changed for the Alabama-Huntsville hockey program, the more they’ve stayed the same.
In some aspects, the Chargers are on much firmer footing than they had been in recent years. UAH was rescued from a three-year stint in the NCAA Division I independent wilderness by the WCHA on Jan. 17, and with that announcement came the security of guaranteed games — both home and away — against fellow top-flight teams.
That isn’t to say UAH is completely out of the woods yet.
The school announced the hiring of its third head coach in four years and fourth in the last seven on July 8. The new man in charge, Mike Corbett, will face a tough task in getting the Chargers up to speed with their new league brethren while also dealing with the recruiting challenges that come with being the lone Division I hockey program in the South.
Having spent the last 10 years as an assistant coach at Air Force, though, Corbett will feel right at home facing such tests.
“Every school has its drawbacks, and ours here is our lack of Division I identity,” Corbett said. “I’ve already had kids I’ve talked to in the past say, ‘Hey, congratulations on the new job. Are you guys Division I?’
“I got that when I started at Air Force, too, and that’s the biggest thing we want to do here: to establish that identity.”
The Falcons left College Hockey America, of which Alabama-Huntsville was also a member, to join Atlantic Hockey in 2006, four years before the CHA’s men’s league folded with UAH still in it. That meant the team has always had a league to call home since 1999, but recruiting hockey players to the United States Air Force Academy has not been easy.
The challenges in recruiting to service academies grow during times of U.S. military involvement overseas, which had been the case since Corbett arrived at Air Force ahead of the 2003-04 season.
Despite that, the Falcons enjoyed success in the Green Bay, Wis., native and Denver graduate’s time working under Air Force head coach Frank Serratore. Five Atlantic Hockey tournament championships were won and five NCAA tournament appearances were made during Corbett’s stay in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Corbett knows recruiting hockey players to Alabama-Huntsville won’t be a picnic, either. The WCHA has committed to UAH and the city of Huntsville, Ala., has made invested $31 million in renovating the municipal Von Braun Center, but a more solid Division I identity has to be made.
That won’t be easy to do, but Corbett said he feels his time at Air Force, as well as being able to quickly settle into life in Huntsville, has prepared him for what he’s about to face.
“A lot of the things I’ve been able to do the last 10 years, Coach Serratore did a great job preparing me for,” Corbett said. “At certain times, he’s given me the reins to take our team [at Air Force], and so I feel really comfortable from that standpoint.”
He also said he will benefit from his previous coaching experience at the junior level. After leaving Denver in 1997, Corbett was quickly named the head coach of the Butte Irish of the America West Hockey League. He joined the league’s Billings Bulls for a year in 2000 and then the United States Hockey League’s Sioux Falls Stampede in 2001 for another.
“I was basically coaching two college seasons in junior with 60 to 80 games, while in college it’s 30, so I’ve had plenty of old-fashioned standing in the middle of the bench versus one end or the other as your assistant does, and I feel comfortable with that and with the people around me [at UAH].”
As for drawing talent to Huntsville, Corbett stressed that the Chargers need to target certain areas and recruit from those locales.
Those locales, he said, include but aren’t limited to the Chargers’ own proverbial backyard.
“We’ve got to find a niche, and obviously our location in the southeast is something we want to do really well with,” Corbett said. “We’re the only school down here, and we want to get to draw from the local hockey groups that have done a great job with some of the [younger] players down here. And we want to establish ourselves in our home area for sure, but we also have the ability to go up to western Canada, and we’ve got a few freshmen from Ontario and western Canada and kids in the U.S. junior leagues.
“We’ve got to find our niche and use our time the right way in recruiting, and we want to get out there. We want [prospective players] to know that we’re out there, and we want to bring them in and show them that we’ve got everything every Division I program has.”
That, in a nutshell, is the challenge Corbett faces in Huntsville: Geography dictates that UAH is something of a college hockey diaspora, but it isn’t so isolated that it can’t compete with other Division I programs.
“We’re not as much of an outlier as people think in terms of being able to get things and getting to places and having people get here,” Corbett said, “But there is a stereotype about Alabama being football and that there’s no hockey in Alabama, but those are things that we want to change.
“We’ve got a great setup, and we’ve got great backing and great support from our alumni and athletic department, and we just want to show people those things.
“The United States have a lot of good hockey players and a lot of good leagues and a lot of players who might’ve ended up playing Division III hockey but have Division I attributes, and we want to become a player in recruiting and become a tough team to play against.”