In what can be described as nothing short of a surprise, the Central Collegiate Hockey Association voted yesterday to deny Alabama-Huntsville’s application to become the 12th member of the CCHA in 2010, which would have made them the replacement for the WCHA bound Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks.
Already, the college hockey world is up-in-arms about the CCHA’s decision, which, admittedly, doesn’t make any sense at all on the surface. With UNO heading to the WCHA after this season, the CCHA finds themselves staring at an 11 team conference with an unbalanced schedule and a spot to fill. UAH, who is a member of the soon-to-be defunct College Hockey America, is the only team from that league who has yet to find a home in a new conference. On the surface, this looked like an easy match. But something obviously didn’t work for the CCHA, and now we have an incredibly awkward situation in which a school could potentially lose it’s hockey program after this season, while one of the premier conferences in the nation has a spot to fill.
Unfortunately, the CCHA isn’t doing themselves any favors with the way they have handled this announcement. Officially, all the league has said on the matter has come from an official announcement on the conference website:
“The league completed its due diligence of the application for membership submitted by the University of Alabama in Huntsville with careful consideration and discussion of various issues,” stated CCHA Commissioner Tom Anastos. “At this time we have chosen to maintain our membership at its current level.”
“The CCHA will remain focused on maintaining and strengthening our existing members to ensure the conference’s continued success and long-term viability,” Anastos added.
Not alot to go on from Anastos’ comments, which only serve to fuel the fire of college hockey fans who are upset at the prospect of watching another program disappear from the niche landscape that is the college game.
In discussing these developments with some friends, I took some heat for suggesting that (despite not making them public), the CCHA may have some legitimate concerns which led to the denial of UAH’s application. While many college hockey fans thought that UAH’s bid was a foregone conclusion to be accepted, there were issues at play for the league that obviously raised concerns about the viability of UAH to succeed in gaining entrance. Among those mentioned at various times:
- Lack of competition – Since legendary coach Doug Ross departed after the ‘06-‘07 campaign, the Chargers have gone a dismal 11-41-9 under coach Danton Cole. With the pairwise rankings rewarding matchups against better teams, UAH doesn’t even come close to replacing the traditionally “middle-of-the-pack” Nebraska-Omaha squad. Additionally, there has been much concern centered around the fact that UAH sits in an area that isn’t known for developing and housing quality recruits, as UAH is the only D1 college hockey program south of the Mason-Dixon line.
- Low attendance – Despite having a facility that holds 6,600 fans, the Chargers only averaged 2,688 butts in seats for 10 home games last season. Granted, this number is comparable to the amount of fans teams like Bowling Green, Ferris State and Western Michigan draw per game, but the argument will be made that those teams are more centrally located within the conference, making it more conducive for travel, therefore negating the low attendance argument (more on this below.)
- Commitment questions – Currently, there is no firm agreement in place with the Von Braun Center, and there are many in the Huntsville area who would like to see city money go someplace else other than to support a small hockey program. That said, the soon to be re-named Propst Center just received funds to undergo a $15 million dollar renovation, which SHOULD have assuaged facility concerns with the CCHA.
- Travel – This one really doesn’t hold any water as teams are required to fly to Fairbanks, Alaska every season for a weekend series, as well as the fact that the difference in distance travelled to get to Omaha and Huntsville is practically negligible. However, with UNO averaging over 6,200 fans a game last season (6th best in the NCAA), CCHA officials had an easier time sending their squads on such trips. Drop that number by over 3,000 fans, and all of a sudden the conference isn’t a huge proponent of the long trip. Like I said, I don’t see this argument holding any credence whatsoever, but the CCHA brought it up and now they have to deal with the backlash.
- The BGSU Conundrum – While having NOTHING directly to do with UAH’s bid, the CCHA has been dealing with the ongoing saga that is the Bowling Green hockey program’s bid to stay alive after next season. BGSU is in the midst of trying to cut expenditure all across the athletic program, and one of the teams that has been on the chopping block since day 1 is the hockey program. Despite claiming the ONLY national championship in school history, men’s ice hockey had it’s head in the guillotine for quite some time. However, the school recently approved $4 million in funds to help renovate the aging arena, signaling that the program might still have some signs of life in it. That said, there is still much work to be done to ensure the long-term success of BGSU hockey.What does this mean for UAH/CCHA? Well, if the CCHA brass know something we don’t about the fate of BGSU, it could have helped sway their vote against the Chargers. Voting in one team while having to watch another team fall off the board would still keep the CCHA stuck at the 11 team mark. So rather than saying “yes” to UAH right now, the league may have decided to let the BGSU saga play itself out this year, and see where they net out after the ‘09-‘10 campaign. As far as I know, there is nothing barring UAH from re-applying for admission after this season, although it would be tough to imagine them being happy about doing it if they had to given the CCHA’s current stance.
So here’s the thing: I’m not hating on UAH. I was hoping they would make it into the conference. I, like most every other fan out there, was hoping to see this team avoid a potential death sentence as the lone D1 independent. My point is simply that there have been concerns from day 1 about UAH’s bid, and that everyone who had gone ahead and added the Chargers to the ‘10-‘11 conference roster should have been prepared for some pushback from the CCHA. Let’s not forget that the conference is in a perennial fight to maintain supremacy with the likes of Hockey East and the WCHA, and that the CCHA is probably looking for a “lateral” replacement for UNO. Sadly, UAH is not an equal replacement and is clearly a step down from the Mavericks, which to me is the biggest reason the CCHA wasn’t willing to accept the Charger program with open arms. But that logic is part of the bigger problem across the board right now: college hockey lacks exposure and therefore new teams.
The real tragedy here is the fact that college hockey is such a niche sport that there isn’t much room for expansion or growth of the game. Because of that, there seems to be an overwhelming perception that all existing programs need to be looked out for and preserved if at all possible. Frankly, I fall into that camp. I NEVER want to see any program on the verge of dying go down that long and lonely road. But the UAH situation has raised alot of questions for me about how a decision like the CCHA’s affects my relationship with the conference and team that I associate the most closely with, in terms of continued league success and high-level competition.
I can see both sides of the coin here. But the problem still remains that the CCHA won’t explain their logic, which is just going to continue to leave a bad taste in the mouth of fans everywhere. At this point, the league is getting blasted for their actions, so what further harm could possibly be done if they come out and say “Well, we just didn’t want UAH.” They’ll get blasted just the same way they are right now, but at least everyone will know that the CCHA sees themselves in the elitist light and we can all move forward from that accordingly. But if there’s something bigger going on here, the league owes it to fans of the game, and to the UAH program to disclose their logic.
Here’s to hoping the league does the right thing and tells us what’s going on in their heads. They’ve already dropped the ball once in keeping UAH out. Let’s hope they don’t do it again.