The University of Alabama Huntsville announced on May 22nd that they would be cutting their NCAA D1 men’s ice hockey program, along with men’s and women’s tennis. Student-athletes on these rosters were given the opportunity to transfer to other programs free of eligibility restrictions or remain at the university where their scholarships would be honored.
However, the Chargers refused to go down without a fight, and it worked. Well, for the time being at least.
Supporters of the team created a Go Fund Me page and took to social media to raise funds to save the program. In a week, they were able to raise $500,000 for the team, enough to guarantee the Chargers one more season of hockey. This sparked other fundraising efforts, including local sponsorships and alumni donations, totaling $750,000.
Calgary Flames goaltender Cam Talbot, a former UAH Charger and a prime example of the program’s success, was instrumental in raising awareness of the fundraising campaign, bridging the NHL and college hockey communities. Blackhawks players Patrick Kane and Dylan Strome showed their support to their massive fanbases on twitter.
The Chargers will participate in the NCAA D1 2020-21 hockey season, but their future remains unclear. If they are unable to secure sustainable and long term funding and sort out conferencing issues, UAH’s time as a D1 program may be limited.
Expenses were the main contributing factor that led to scrapping the hockey program, apparently made worse by COVID-19 which has forced many schools across the country to make budget cuts. Athletic director Cade Smith notes that coronavirus was not the main reason for these cuts, but says that it did “expedite the process.” He points to hockey naturally being an expensive sport, especially given Huntsville’s location and distance from opponents (College Hockey News).
This is not the first time the UAH Chargers have been threatened. In June 2019, 7 of 10 member teams of the Western Colligate Hockey Association announced they would leave the conference and form a new division, essentially screwing over Alaska-Fairbanks, Alaska-Anchorage, and Alabama Huntsville who would be left without a conference. This decision will go into effect for the 2021-22 season. The seven departing teams claim that this decision was made to improve the academics and student-athlete experience of the conference, but it’s clear they just didn’t want to travel the long distance to Alaska and Alabama, as the WCHA is the weakest conference academically, containing Ferris State, Lake Superior State, and Bemidji. It was clear to the college hockey community at large that this decision to withdraw was made to exclude the remaining teams.
Alabama Huntsville has been a valuable asset in growing the game of hockey in non-traditional markets, which is why many hockey fans were saddened to hear that the program was going to be cut. In an era of expansion at every level of hockey, from NHL to mini mites, it seemed like a step backward. It’s worth noting that Long Island University in New York will be competing as a division one program during the 2020-21 season.
For the time being, it’s unclear what UAH plans to do after the WCHA dismantles. The University of Arizona has maintained a healthy program despite participating as a non-conference team, but with funding struggles, that may not be possible for the Chargers.
Regardless, as hockey fans, we can all say that we are glad to see members of the hockey community come together to support the game and that a group of young athletes won’t lose their team.