There was no state trooper escort, as Clarence Driggers had hinted there would be. But you sensed the truth in what old Clarence had said, even if he had chortled and guffawed all afternoon as he recounted stories about the only NCAA hockey team in the South.
Behind a yellow cordon and a lone security guard, a crowd of some 50 fans stood four deep outside the home locker room, most of them seeking a stick, a puck, an autographed ticket stub, even just a faint smile of acknowledgment. More than 3,800 people had piled into the Von Braun Civic Center on this January night to see the University of Alabama at Huntsville Chargers. The game had been a joke, a 14-1 drubbing of Connecticut's Fairfield University. Still, the fans had been a polite lot, cheering everything—hard bodychecks, icing, even the opponents' efforts when the rout became obvious.
When someone finally emerged from the Charger locker room—it was Howie McEachren, an assistant coach and a UAH defenseman from 1988 to '92—he created such a stir you might have thought he was the Bear himself. Children elbowed the giggly, camera-wielding hockey Annies for space, all the while being careful to clear a path for McEachren. Then Driggers, a 64-year-old Huntsville resident who has been such a devoted supporter of the team that he has landed a spot in the school's athletic Hall of Honor, pulled a visitor closer, as if he were going to disclose some big secret. "Some of these guys," he said in a whisper, "are more popular than Wayne Gretzky down here."
Though Driggers then started to laugh, you get the impression he actually meant what he said. As former center Stu Vitue points out, "People here don't exactly have a global view of hockey."
Tucked in a valley at the southern tip of Appalachia, 400 miles south of its nearest NCAA opponent, Alabama-Huntsville is situated in the heart of the second-most productive cotton-growing county in the state. Madison County is flanked on four sides by dry counties, and even within the Huntsville city limits, prohibition is still observed by some as the de facto 11th Commandment. And though the city boasts the second-highest per capita income in Alabama and residents are decidedly cosmopolitan, relics of a former way of thinking still hang in the air like the August humidity.
"I remember a few years back when a team from Alaska came in here," says Julie Woltjen, the school's sports information director. "I'm sitting next to their radio announcer, and all of a sudden he's getting excited about something. He then hunches over his microphone, and I start listening a little bit closer. Well, he's telling his listeners, 'There's been an overalls sighting.' An overalls sighting?"
By all accounts the first hockey puck was dropped in Huntsville in 1962, several years before integration began to take root in earnest and several years after the first northerners started moving to the city to build what would become one of the country's largest defense and aerospace industries. One of the newcomers was an IBM engineer named Fred Hudson, who was also a youth football coach. Hudson, a native of Connecticut, gladly accepted the locals' proposal that he be the hockey coach for 60 kids recruited from four youth football teams.
Though only a handful of kids had ever heard of the game and fewer had any idea how to play it, the townsfolk spared no expense in getting the sport off the ground; Hudson, who says he would have been content to tape magazines around his players' ankles to serve as pads, received exactly 60 complete sets of top-of-the-line hockey equipment. Of the first practice, Hudson recalls: "I blew the whistle, and the mere sound of it knocked some of the kids over. Only one kid made it to the other end of the rink standing."
However, within a decade the program had grown to nearly 500 kids, some of whom traveled as far away as Indiana and Ohio for games. Eventually several of these kids would play on the first UAH club hockey team, in 1979. The Charger coach back then was a 29-year-old attorney named Joe Ritch, who had been one of the youngsters who showed up at the Ice Palace 17 years earlier. His team was given $4,000 worth of equipment, but the program operated without a budget.
The second season Ritch and his players were able somehow to get by on a $5,000 budget, which, he says, "was about enough for $5 a week in meal money for each player." They slept four to a room on the road. They drove to games that were sometimes hundreds of miles away. And more than once, they would finish a game, jump into their cars and drive all night back to Huntsville to play a morning game. "But even then, it was clear that hockey had a real chance to grow here," says Ritch.
So, before the start of the third season, Ritch placed an ad in The Hockey News, hoping to draw northerners to supplement his dwindling reserves of homegrown hockey talent. More than 300 responded. And Doug Ross, a member of the U.S. Olympic hockey team that won the bronze medal in 1976, became the Charger coach in 1982 after seeing an ad for the position in the same publication. By 1987 the team had gone from a club program to a Division I program. Although the Chargers chose to drop back to Division II before the start of last season when a division championship was established, the athletic department still commits more than 50% of its budget to a sport that is not played in a single Alabama high school.
It has been nearly a decade since a local boy played a regular shift at UAH. And more than a few Charger fans would prefer a return to the good old days, before there were hockey scholarships and marquee-name rust-belt opponents and northerners with their Walter Mitty dreams of professional hockey careers—the days when the team was just a bunch of guys from the north Alabama hills, however aesthetically displeasing their play on the ice might have been.
"I remember when almost all of our opponents were from south of the Mason-Dixon line," says Brian Kelly, who was among the first northerners to play for UAH, in the early '80s. "Vanderbilt. Tennessee. Auburn. Georgia Tech. They were all club teams. But we'd be able to fill up the joint for a weekend series and leave 'em believing we had beaten the football team—left us believing we had beaten the football team."
Alas, such teams featured talent that suggested it had been skimmed from the football team, albeit from the fourth-string. In six years at the club level, 1979 to 1985, UAH went 160-22-5, won three national club championships and outscored its opponents by better than a 5-1 ratio. Ritch proved to be a country slicker who could play a crowd better than a television evangelist. "We'd be up 19-0 against some school like Auburn, and Joe was hollering for 20," says Kelly. "Understandably that drove the crowd wild."
Fans loved the swaggering style of those Chargers—who soon adopted the nickname "the Von Braun Bullies"—and bench-clearing brawls like the one on a January night in 1980 against Vanderbilt, when in the third period a fight broke out at center ice. Soon the entire rink was littered with flailing bodies. "Entire rink?" says Ritch. "It was the entire building. We had players chasing each other through the corridors underneath the stands. That might have turned the whole program around. A month later fans were piling into the building so fast the fire marshal had to turn away a couple thousand."
Several of the southern club programs have folded. And none of them ever made the jump to NCAA status, leaving UAH to find its opponents elsewhere. Nonetheless, Charger fans still come out in respectable numbers—though it has been years since Von Braun officials needed the services of the fire marshal to maintain order. Last season the Chargers averaged more than 2,500 spectators a game, and considerably more showed up during the silent season between the end of the college gridiron campaign in January and the beginning of football spring practice three months later.
Von Braun still retains much of its flavor from the program's palmier days in the '80s. During breaks in the action cheerleaders turn cartwheels in the upper level as the music from a spirited band washes over the crowd. At the beginning of each period Sweet Home Alabama blares from the loudspeakers—though it has been a long time since more than a few Chargers called Alabama home. Perhaps such things are a bit provincial. "But that's what gives UAH its identity," says senior right wing Graham Fair. "That's what allows hockey to survive here."
This season, the Chargers were off to an 8-1-1 start as of Dec. 2, including an impressive 4-2 win over traditional Division I power Providence College on Nov. 27. In his 12 seasons at UAH, Ross has a winning percentage just a shade under .600. "I don't know how much that matters, though," says Ross. "Folks here want a winning team—don't get me wrong. But to have seen the sport grow as much as it has, to be the only NCAA program in the South, that might be enough for them."