Alabama-Huntsville making bid to become 10th WCHA member, will discuss travel subsidy with members
MARQUETTE – When the University of Alabama-Huntsville makes its pitch Thursday at the NCAA convention in Dallas, Texas, to become the 10th member of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, Northern Michigan University’s contingent of Athletic Director Forrest Karr and President David Haynes will be paying attention to three key issues.
Direct flights to Huntsville, Ala., from Chicago and Detroit are important and so is the amount of potential missed class time by student athletes.
The big issue, however, will be the kind of travel subsidy offered – if any.
Chargers’ Athletic Director E.J. Brophy believes Karr, Haynes and the rest of the league will like what UAH President Robert Altenkirch has to say on that subject.
“I’m not going to go into detail right now,” Brophy said by phone from Huntsville on Monday. “I’ll only say our president will be addressing that Thursday and the people sitting in that room will be very happy with what he has to say.”
Now in the 11th hour, the Chargers’ hockey program is ready to put everything on the table for the nine future members of the WCHA this week in an attempt join the league and save its hockey program, which is the lone independent left in NCAA Division I hockey following the collapse of College Hockey America in 2010.
UAH will need approval from seven of the WCHA’s nine presidents and chancellors with NMU, Michigan Tech, Lake Superior State, Ferris State, Bowling Green State, Alaska-Anchorage and Alaska-Fairbanks set to make up the league in 2013-14.
“For us to get into the WCHA, it would be like opening the gates of heaven for our hockey program,” Brophy said. “It really would.”
The lack of a league has hindered the Chargers’ recruiting efforts over the past three seasons because an inability to reach the NCAA tournament. A severe lack of home games at the team’s recently renovated, 6,602-seat Von Braun Center doesn’t help either.
No league means no automatic NCAA bid for UAH to chase after, or a set amount of home games in a year.
In the CHA’s 11 seasons from 1999-2010, UAH won two league tournament titles to get into the NCAA tournament. In 2007, the Chargers lost in double overtime to No. 2 overall seed Notre Dame and in 2010, UAH fell to No. 1 overall seed Miami, 2-1.
NMU has just one NCAA appearance in that span, losing to St. Cloud State in double overtime in 2010.
“If you look at how we played hockey before we became an independent, it’s pretty darn attractive,” Brophy said. “Since we’ve become an independent three years ago – we’ve played three full seasons just about as an independent – it has not been attractive. It’s hard to schedule, it’s hard to win, it’s hard to recruit and we are basically going on the road and playing powerhouses every time we go on the road.”
A travel subsidy similar to what the Alaska-Fairbanks and Alaska-Anchorage offer will go a long way to opening those gates, according to Karr, who was the AD at UAF for seven years prior to taking over NMU’s athletic department in June.
“As we go into this new WCHA conference, we know that costs are going to increase for a variety of reasons,” said Karr. “We’d like to make sure adding another member institution doesn’t directly impact our budget.”
WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod said a travel subsidy from UAH is not only a major concern for rest of the league, but for him as well.
Only McLeod wants to know whether or not the Chargers can afford the costs of hotel rooms, place tickets and ground transportation for the other nine league members, while still being competitive.
“They have to do something that makes sense in the long term for their program,” McLeod said. “Under normal circumstances, not counting any kind of subsidies, you are talking probably spending a ($1.3 million) on the hockey program to be competitive.
“They better be aware of what they are getting into in the long term here.”
For NMU, paying for plane tickets may not be enough. The Wildcats want to know they can fly directly into Huntsville from either Detroit or Chicago on a single plane that can accommodate the entire team, coaching and support staff and their gear without making multiple connections and hopping on buses.
That shouldn’t be a problem, according to Brophy, after the Huntsville International Airport completed its $92 million in renovations in November to improve access to NASA’s Marshall Flight Center and the United States Army Aviation and Missile Command, which are both located in the Huntsville metro area.
“It’s a real misconception that it’s hard to get to Huntsville,” Brophy said. “We’re a town that shoots rockets into outer space. We have a nice airport. We have interstates. We have a pretty nice town with a half-million people in the metro area.
“When you think about how difficult it is to get to some place say maybe Fairbanks or Anchorage when you are in a place like Lake Superior or Bemidji, that’s a big ordeal to get there. To get to Huntsville, compared to that is a piece of cake.”
Part of the Chargers’ presentation Thursday will also include a 10-team scheduling format for the league that will reduce the amount of times schools must travel to Alaska to play the Nanooks and Seawolves.
Karr said if UAH can show Thursday the Chargers’ addition to the WCHA will reduce missed class time by student-athletes and reduce the number of trips teams from the lower 48 make to Alaska, that will be very favorable for UAH.
“By adding us to the league … It will show without a shadow of a doubt, that other teams in the WCHA will go to Alaska less with UAH in the league,” Brophy said. “In our minds, that will be a very attractive point in the conversation.”
Karr, then the UAF AD, was part of the CCHA contingent along with former commissioner Tom Anastos, BGSU AD Greg Christopher and NMU faculty athletic representative Julie Rochester that visited Huntsville during its failed bid to join the CCHA in 2009.
In October, WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod, Mankato President Richard Davenport and outgoing Bemidji AD Rick Goeb made a trip to UAH as well to evaluate the school and program.
Karr said he came away from the visit quite impressed with the Huntsville community, university and athletic program. He said he doesn’t want to see Division I college hockey contract, however, the NMU athletic director must look out for what’s in the best interest of the Wildcats.
“I don’t want to see us lose any more Division I programs,” said Karr, who supported UAH’s bid for the CCHA in 2009. “For me, that is a concern. That is something that I think about a lot. We have lost a lot of programs in recent years, especially if you go back 15 or 20 years. I don’t want to see that trend continue.
“Because of the economic reality, though, we have to look at these decisions based on the financial impact that it is going to have on our institution.”
In addition to Huntsville’s bid to become the 10th member of the WCHA, the league also hopes to finalize the conference office budget and staff; secure agreements on the conference tournament; discuss a standardized video streaming package the involves all nine schools; and a redesign of the WCHA logo.
The future WCHA tournament is expected to rotate between the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., and Van Andel Arena in downstate Grand Rapids.
Matt Wellens can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/mattwellens.