The biggest decision in the history of the Alabama-Huntsville hockey program won’t come this weekend in a series at UNO, even if the Chargers pull off a sweep.
Off the ice, in January, the WCHA is expected to discuss whether to extend an invitation to Alabama-Huntsville to join the league.
“Without a conference, it’s going to be difficult to keep the program, without a doubt,” Chargers coach Kurt Kleinendorst said. “I don’t think the WCHA is looking at it that way — the WCHA needs to do what’s best for the conference. But I think Huntsville has a lot to offer. I don’t see the downside.”
Realignment in college hockey hits full stride next season, when the Big Ten becomes reality — pulling Minnesota and Wisconsin from the Western Collegiate Hockey Association and Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State from the Central Collegiate Hockey Association to join upstart Penn State.
Arguably the best of the rest of the WCHA and CCHA (with the exception of Notre Dame) are forming the National Collegiate Hockey Conference — UNO is among those teams.
The CCHA is going out of business.
That leaves nine schools — Alaska-Anchorage, Alaska-Fairbanks, Bemidji State, Bowling Green, Ferris State, Lake Superior State, Michigan Tech, Minnesota State-Mankato and Northern Michigan — to make up the WCHA.
Having Alabama-Huntsville as a 10th WCHA team would save one of Division I’s 59 programs. It would make league scheduling easier. It might cause some geographic difficulties.
Alabama-Huntsville, which had planned to drop the sport at the end of last season before a change in school administration reversed course, has made moves to show that it is serious about hockey again.
Its home arena, the city-run Von Braun Center, has recently undergone a $15 million renovation. The Chargers have added a second full-time assistant coach and a director of hockey operations.
WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod was among the interested parties on hand when the Chargers opened this season at home against Minnesota State.
“We’ve got a very nice international airport,” Kleinendorst said. “There are three hotels by the Von Braun Center that teams can walk to the rink from. It’s an easy flight in from a lot of places, and it’s not too bad of a bus ride for others. I don’t know if we’re a perfect fit, but I think we’re a pretty good fit.”
A former power at the club and Division II levels, Alabama-Huntsville was making an impact at the Division I level as well and reached the NCAA tournament as College Hockey America champions in 2007 and again in 2010.
However, as the CHA was in the process of disbanding, Alabama-Huntsville was denied entry into the Central Collegiate Hockey Association. The Chargers have been backsliding as Division I’s only independent program ever since. They are 7-64-4 since the start of the 2010-11 season, including 1-10-1 this year.
Kleinendorst, a former New Jersey Devils assistant and scout as well as a former American Hockey League coach, took over the program in late September.
“The presentation I got from the president was that it’s an opportunity to come in and build a foundation to a program,” Kleinendorst said. “Our president believes in this and wants badly to be in the WCHA, and he felt like I could be part of helping the university make that step.
“We’ve made some progress, and we have some progress to make. It is a challenge, I’m not going to lie.”
The program’s instability has made recruiting and scheduling difficult (this is the team’s sixth consecutive weekend on the road).
And, after moving to the brink of elimination last season, top players like goaltender Clarke Saunders (North Dakota), defenseman Nickolas Gatt (Michigan State) and forward Mac Roy (Robert Morris) transferred.
Those who have remained have gained Kleinendorst’s approval.
“It hasn’t been easy, but guys have been absolutely wonderful in their attitude and approach, and we’ve continued to move forward,” Kleinendorst said.
“We’ve gotten this group where we’re going to be competitive. We’re never going to be the most talented, no question about it. But we’ll be an honest, hard-working group and together we can accomplish things.”
After earning a tie against Minnesota State in the second game of the season, the Chargers endured some rough nights — including an 8-3 loss to St. Cloud State and a 9-1 loss to Bentley. But most of their other games have been reasonably close.
Last weekend, they broke through and beat Lake Superior State (now 6-6) for their first win of the season in the opener of a two-game series.
“That was huge,” Kleinendorst said. “You can hear it and hear it from your coach that you’re making progress, but at some point you’ve got to get a result.”
Kind of like the result the Chargers would like to get from the WCHA in January.
Keep the program going and Alabama-Huntsville could continue to grow the sport, Kleinendorst said. Recruiting opportunities exist — good players are out there even after the power programs select who they want, and the potential for extended playing time is a possibility.
“There are a lot of good things about Huntsville,” Kleinendorst said. “The big monkey on our back has been the holding pattern with the WCHA.
“We just need a little love down here.”
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