By Jim Connelly
As the pucks drops on another college hockey season, the game’s landscape, particularly amongst the two youngest conferences – Atlantic Hockey and College Hockey America – has dramatically changed.
The 2009-10 season marks the final campaign that the CHA will be intact. Decimated by the departure of Air Force to Atlantic Hockey in 2006 and also the elimination of the Div. I men’s program at Wayne State prior to the start of last season, the four remaining CHA members will take different paths beyond this season.
Niagara University, located near Buffalo, and Robert Morris University of metropolitan Pittsburgh, have found a home in Atlantic Hockey, starting in 2010. The addition of those two clubs expands college hockey’s youngest conference to 12 teams and strengthens its geographic footprint in Pennsylvania and New York.
“(Expansion) helps us significantly,” said Atlantic Hockey commissioner Bob DeGregorio. “Getting into that Pittsburgh market is going to be a windfall for us. Niagara is right next to (current member) Canisius so that will only create greater rivalries, we hope.”
Bemidji State, coming off the school’s first-ever appearance in the Frozen Four – the first for any CHA or Atlantic Hockey team – also found a home for next season. The Beavers will take up residence in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association in 2010-11, a move that was aided by Nebraska-Omaha also moving to the WCHA (from the Central Collegiate Hockey Association).
With that game of musical chairs over, only the Alabama-Huntsville Chargers remain without a conference to play in next season. The school has a strong tradition that includes two Div. II national championships along with an NCAA Tournament appearance at the Div. I level in 2007. When Nebraska-Omaha departed from the CCHA, it left the conference with an uneven 11 teams, which made it seem as though Alabama-Huntsville would fit in there.
But in early August, the Chargers were dealt a crushing blow when the CCHA rejected their bid for membership, choosing to stay the course with 11 teams. What was left was not just an odd number of teams for the CCHA, but also a homeless program in Alabama-Huntsville.
The shockwaves that resonated from Alabama after the decision were palpable. While many around the college sport boasted the party line that losing additional Div. I programs was not an option, Alabama-Huntsville was now in a position where it will have to either take on the unenviable task of surviving as an independent or folding the program.
“From an (athletic director’s) standpoint it’s disappointing to me,” said UAH director of athletics Jim Harris. “We did a pretty darn good job of meeting all (of the CCHA’s) criteria for membership.
“I don’t have the official known reason why. It was just told to me that they wished to stay at 11 and weren’t considering our application.”
The Chargers weren’t the only ones left shaking their collective heads. Many across the game were puzzled by the decision. Most saw Alabama-Huntsville as a fair geographic replacement for Nebraska-Omaha as travel distance to either campus from most CCHA schools was about the same or even shorter. UAH worked closely with the city to negotiate dates at the municipal arena, the Van Braun Center, something that was seen as the only sticking point to the application.
But in the end, nothing could satisfy the 11 remaining CCHA members enough to allow the Chargers admission.
Though the decision appeared simple on paper, some caution it’s not.
DeGregorio noted it’s the member-teams of the CCHA, not the league itself, who vote on whether or not to accept a new team into the conference.
“While our unified goal is to not lose any more programs, there might be times where that gets overshadowed by the individual goals of each team and the goals of those teams for the league,” DeGregorio said.
While it’s unclear if the CCHA will be an option for the Chargers in the future, the focus now is on the current campaign.
“We’re going to take a run at it as an independent,” said UAH coach Danton Cole. “We’re going to make ourselves as desirable as we can so the next time there is an opportunity, people will want to take us into the league.”
The only question that remains is what comes first: the next opportunity or the program’s demise?