Friday, November 25, 2011

Alabama-Huntsville's Farewell Tour Comes to UNH

There's an NCAA Division I hockey program south of the Mason-Dixon Line? Well, yes and no, not much longer. The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) launched an NCAA hockey team in the heady days of 1985 when Huntsville was thriving as the home of the Marshall Space Flight Center and the U.S. Army Missile Command. The ice hockey program, which began as a club hockey team in 1979, has played its home games at the Von Braun Center - named for former German scientist Wernher von Braun who served as the Director of the Marshall Center. With that heritage, you might expect the team to be named the "Rockets", not the "Chargers" (a white stallion).

During a successful 1986-87 season, when UAH was playing in the old NCAA Division II, the infamous Governor George Wallace dubbed Huntsville "The Hockey Capital of the South." In 1996 and 1998, UAH won the NCAA Division II Championship. Division II was disbanded and since the 1998-99 season, Alabama-Huntsville has been a Division I team. In 1999, UAH became a founding member of the Central Hockey Association, a league which included Air Force, Army, Bemidji State and Niagara, and played in the CHA until it was disbanded following the 2009-10 season.

The Chargers may be best known as the team that, in the 2006-07 regular season, finished below .500 but advanced to the NCAA Division I Tournament after winning the CHA Championship Tournament. Alabama-Huntsville pushed Notre Dame to the limit in the first round game but lost in double overtime. In 2010, the final season of the Central Hockey Association, UAH won the CHA Championship and advanced to the Division I Tournament for the second time. The Chargers lost in the first round 2-1 to Miami. Although UAH fans could not have known it at the time, that NCAA Tournament battle against Miami was the last hurrah for the program. Last season, Alabama-Huntsville played as a team without a conference. Finally, last month, University of Alabama Systems chancellor Malcolm Portera announced that the UAH hockey program would leave Division I of the NCAA at the end of this season and return to club hockey status. The reason given was that it would cost too much money to maintain a Division I team.

The University of Alabama-Huntsville hockey team arrives in Durham for a game at the Whittemore Center on Saturday evening in what must be dreary circumstances. The future for the players, most of whom played Junior A hockey in various Canadian Leagues before going to Huntsville, is uncertain. As the new feature on our blog - a link to The College Hockey News "Tale of the Tape" (see right sidebar) - shows, UAH has not won a game this season. They've spent Thanksgiving "vacation" over a thousand miles from home losing games at Merrimack and UMass-Lowell.

The UNH team that will face Alabama-Huntsville is entering the weekend on a losing streak of its own. Against BU, they were competitive but lost 4-1. On Tuesday, UNH gave up a four-goal and then three-goal lead to lose to Harvard 7-6. These loses followed a convincing 5-0 shutout of UMass Lowell last Friday. UNH fans are left wondering which UNH team will skate against UAH.

Will Matt Di Girolamo, who had his first shutout of the year against Lowell but gave up 9 goals in the last two games (not counting the empty net goals) be in net? Will Sophomore goalie Jeff Wyer get his second start of the year? Maybe Freshman Casey DeSmith will get to play his first NCAA game just down the road from his hometown.

Of the six defensemen who have played every game - Damon Kipp & Eric Knodel, Connor Hardowa & Trevor van Riemsdyk, and Justin Agosta & Brett Kostolansky - only TvR has a positive rating in the +/- column. The rest have negative ratings ranging from -3 to -6. Will either of the two freshman defensemen, Eric Chevrier or Ryan Randall, play in their first NCAA game? Chevrier's strengths include his physical, shutdown defensive play. Randall converted to a defenseman while playing with the Junior Monarchs in the EJHL. Last season, Knodel and Agosta practiced with the team but did not play in any regular season games. As a result, they will be allowed to play this season and three additional seasons. Will that be the plan for Chevrier and Randall?

The out-of-conference game against Alabama-Huntsville will not impact UNH in the Hockey East standings. This would be a logical game for the UNH coaches to make changes in the lineup, forward lines and defensive pairings. Should be an interesting game at the Whittemore Center. Next week, UAH returns to the South to play out their final season while UNH returns to Hockey East competition.


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