Much had changed since the last time the Alabama Huntsville hockey team had stepped out on the ice at the Von Braun Center.
The Chargers had played their last game of the 2019-20 season on Feb. 29, 2020, a 4-1 loss to Bowling Green.
Little did they know how trying the next 10 months would be.
The COVID-19 pandemic shut the whole world down within the next month of that game. The Chargers, as we found out this summer, nearly didn’t make it past the spring.
The UAH administration made the decision to terminate the team in May, and it took an 11th-hour fundraising campaign to save the program and ensure that there would be games in the Hockey Capital of the South this season.
But despite being cleared to play another season, the Chargers had to wait even longer to finally take the ice again. College hockey didn’t start back up again until November, and even then, UAH was on the road for its first six games.
So last Friday and Saturday’s games were a cathartic experience for the Chargers: a sweep of Ferris State in their first home games in almost 11 months.
“I’d call it a program weekend,” first-year UAH head coach Lance West said. “It wasn’t a team or individual or staff win, it was a program win. There were a lot of people fighting for this program, and it means a lot to a lot of people.”
Dayne Finnson’s goal gave the Chargers a dramatic 5-4 overtime victory on Friday while David Fessenden’s 42 saves helped lift them to a 2-0 shutout on Saturday. It was the first two victories for the Chargers this season, and their first series sweep since 2018. And, they were able to do it in front of actual fans. The Von Braun Center is allowing for a limit of 30 percent capacity for Charger hockey games. That meant there were around 1,200 people there both nights.
“We were saying the other day, it’s the first time we’ve ever led the nation in attendance,” West said.
Indeed, these past few years have seen the Chargers struggle to fill the arena. It’s one of the things that West says he’s working to remedy. An on-campus ice arena, which is now in the works as the school re-dedicated its commitment to hockey in October, should help. But West also knows he has to re-establish the trust of the Huntsville community. Home weekends like that one will go a long way.
“It was a big aspect of showing what we can bring, bringing the community back, having the fans back and showing them how entertaining our hockey game can be,” West said. “For us it’s a building process, and earning everyone’s trust back. We have to grow it, and that’s what we’re trying to do right now.”
West, who played for the Chargers from 1991-95, was named head coach this summer after the announcement that the program would return. He was immediately faced with a difficult task. UAH lost a number of players to other Division I programs in the offseason, including Mark Sinclair to Michigan Tech and Jack Jeffers to Lake Superior State. So West had to find more guys who wanted to play.
“That was tough,” he said. “But everybody knew the challenge going in. We had guys who knew what they were going to be facing willing to do the work. And we weren’t going to set any excuses. We knew there would be tough games and tough weekends, but we knew they were going to be good weekends if we did the work.”
At the end of the day, that left just two seniors and six juniors on the team, along with 13 freshmen. Junior Bauer Neidecker was named Charger captain this season, while both seniors — Connor Merkely and Connor Wood — are alternate captains.
“Maybe it’s a cliché, but for us, the whole message from Day 1 is we’re going to establish an identity,” West said. “We’re going to play that way from day one and go through the process. I’ve been very happy with the guys who have done that for all but probably a couple periods so far. And it starts with our older guys, who came back and made a commitment to come back, who said, ‘Yeah, we’re willing to change and do things a different way.’”
West has said the Chargers are going to have to be a “committee” team, but he is leaning on his team leaders. In Saturday’s game, Merkley scored what would prove to be the game-winner. The team killed off six penalties to earn the 2-0 win despite being outshot 42-18.
Right now, West says he’s trying to get the Chargers to the place where they can’t let one successful weekend get to their heads. The team travels to Minnesota this weekend to play a Bemidji State team that is also high on confidence after splitting with Bowling Green. The UAH/BSU rivalry is still important, and West wants his team to make sure they are focused going into the weekend, and going forward.
“It’s one weekend. It’s great success, we played well and earned some wins, but it’s going to get tougher,” West said. “We can’t get too high. People are patting us on the back right now but come Friday, we have to forget about that because we have to play Bemidji in Bemidji, and that’s a tough thing to do.”
Solid weekend for Beavers
Speaking of Bemidji State, their series against Bowling Green over the weekend also had its share of drama. The Beavers had a chance to tie Friday but couldn’t couldn’t convert a late power play chance and ultimately lost 3-2. But on Saturday, they were able to outshoot the Falcons and needed just 13 seconds into overtime to win 4-3. Captain Ethan Somoza scored the game-winner.
The Beavers are finally back at home in Bemidji after a 10-day, four-game road trip that saw them go right from Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., to Bowling Green rather than returning home. In fact, they haven’t played at home since their Dec. 12-13 series against Michigan Tech.
This weekend is the start of a six-game homestand for BSU, their longest of the season. The Beavers host Bowling Green and Lake Superior in the two weekends following the UAH series.