Alabama-Huntsville's demise defines hockey struggles in the South
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If you think that you've had a tough year as a football fan in Minnesota, you're absolutely right. But it could always be much, much worse. You could be a hockey fan in the South.
If you're of a certain age, think back to the hurt and emptiness you felt when the North Stars packed up and took their Zamboni to Dallas in 1993. Remember the disbelief, the anger and the depression that came along with once the realization that pro hockey was truly leaving set in. Now, imagine that six months or so later, the Gopher hockey team had gone away, too.
That's the hockey fan's nightmare scenario that has played out over the past six months among the small but passionate hockey community in Georgia and Alabama. After a nondescript decade or so of existence, the NHL's Thrashers were sold and relocated to Winnipeg in the late spring, making Atlanta the only major sports city in America to lose pro teams to both Alberta and Manitoba (the Flames moved from Atlanta to Calgary in 1980).
And earlier this week the news got even worse for hockey fans in Dixie, as the region's lone link to the world of big-time college hockey was handed a death sentence as well. Though not widely known nationally, the University of Alabama-Huntsville has supported a varsity hockey program for more than three decades. The Chargers won a pair of NCAA titles at the Division II level in the 1990s, and made two trips to the NCAA tournament as a Division I program in the most recent decade.
None of that storied history was enough to save the program from the budget-cutting axe, as the interim president of the U of Alabama system decided the $1 million plus that the hockey team expended every year (more than the budget for all other UAH sports combined) was too
much to bear in these times of economic turmoil. As one angry Tweet from a UAH supporter declared, it's the only school in the nation where they cannibalize their lone D-I team to support D-II softball and baseball. After this season (which includes trips to Minnesota State, Bemidji State and Minnesota Duluth) the Chargers will still play hockey, but only as a campus club team, and the days of scholarships and potential trips to the NCAA tourney will be gone.
And with them, the dream of collegiate hockey expanding outside its current region (draw a line from Princeton to Colorado Springs, and disregard anything south of that line) is gone, at least for now, as well. The D-I level of college hockey will still have 58 teams, as Penn State's much heralded new program comes on-line next season to essentially replace the Chargers. But the dream of some that a talented kid from Minnesota could one day entertain hockey scholarship
offers from the likes of Tennessee, Georgia, Florida and Texas A&M is at best on hold, and at worst the product of an overly active imagination.
Instead, the reality is quite the opposite, as an increasing number of hockey talents from the bottom side of that hockey Mason-Dixon line are coming north to the future. Despite the hits taken in SEC country, youth hockey participation numbers continue to grow in states like
Florida, Texas and California. A generation ago, Gopher goalie John Blue, of San Jose, Calif., was an anomaly, but today few people even look twice at a top-level collegian from Las Vegas, Dallas or Los Angeles.
If the Gophers hope to win this weekend at Alaska Anchorage, they'll have to get a significant number of shots past Seawolves goalie Chris Kamal, from Atlanta. This past summer, forward Gabe Guertler of Plantation, Fla., committed to skate for the Gophers, meaning that college coaches at the most renowned programs in the nation are continuing to take notice of players who got their start in roller hockey, on outdoor concrete-surface rinks, taking their first tentative hockey strides in the shade of a palm tree, or maybe a cactus.
And due to a number of factors, those players will keep traveling far from home for college, out of necessity. For more than 30 years, they tried to make a go of a college hockey toehold in the South. Ultimately, despite the outcry and the pledges of financial support, the success of the Chargers, especially with no nearby rivals, was an unrealistic proposition.
Similar to the passionate but hollow rallying cry in the wake of the Civil War, you'd be wise not to bet your future on the idea that someday college hockey in the South shall rise again.