Timing is everything and unfortunately for the University of Alabama-Huntsville Chargers, it ran out. The men's hockey team was disbanded late last week due to budget woes, though the future already looked bleak for the program.
Though the Chargers are currently members of the WCHA conference, an exodus of teams from that circuit is scheduled for the 2021-22 campaign and Alabama-Huntsville was not invited to what will become a re-born CCHA. The Chargers had been independent before, but this was obviously not a good development.
I am pretty optimistic about the future growth of NCAA hockey and it's too bad to see the Chargers fold, since they were the only Deep South team in Division 1. Heck, they were the only Sunbelt team until Arizona State joined the fray recently.
But what does the future hold for the Sunbelt? With the success of the NHL in the region, I sometimes daydream about what the next decade will hold. Can you imagine the Texas Longhorns and Oklahoma Sooners extending their Red River rivalry to a D1 rink, possibly with a game at American Airlines Center in Dallas? Could the University of South Florida Bulls gain a foothold by tapping into the success of the local Tampa Bay Lightning? And how long before California gets into the D1 game? One SoCal team (USC or UCLA) and one NoCal team (Stanford or Cal-Berkley) gives you an instant rivalry, plus two easy Pac-10 rivals for the ASU Sun Devils. There's also UNLV to consider, with the Golden Knights clearing a path in front of them.
All of which is a long way of saying that Alabama-Huntsville was probably ahead of its time - but on too long a timeline. Turn up your nose at the idea of Alabama hockey if you dare, but Huntsville, with its aerospace industry, has long counted folks from all over America as transplants - including hockey fans from up north. And the Chargers weren't even the only hockey team in town - the Huntsville Havoc have been mainstays in the Southern Pro League for 15 years and played in the same arena as the Chargers.
And while Alabama-Huntsville often struggled for wins (particularly in recent years), the program counts two NHLers amongst its alumni: Jared Ross had a couple cups of coffee with the Philadelphia Flyers, while Cam Talbot has been a No. 1 goalie in the league for years (fun fact: one of his teammates at UAH was future actor Wyatt Russell from "Black Mirror" and "Goon 2").
Now keep in mind that a whole host of other D1 programs from "traditional" hockey states have never graduated that caliber of player.
In reality, however, the coming years were going to be rough for the Chargers and their fate is not surprising. The team wasn't good and geographically, they weren't enticing for opponents, either. It's still a shame that everyone who committed to the program - players, fans, coaches - are now left without a team. Perhaps some of the players and/or coaches can slide up to New York, where Long Island University is attempting to quickly build the NCAA's newest men's program.
Alabama-Huntsville isn't the first school to lose men's hockey: Illinois-Chicago, Findlay and Saint Louis are just a few of the shuttered programs of the past. But it's always a little sad when we lose a team in this sport, no matter the reason.