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Division I hockey … in Alabama? Yes, but for how long?

Of the nation's 58 men's Division I hockey programs, just one is in the South: Alabama-Huntsville.

The origins of the Chargers program date to the space race between the United States and Soviet Union during the 1960s. The future of the host school for this week's Frozen Four at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, though, is in jeopardy. The primary cause is an all-too-familiar topic for college sports fans: conference realignment.

When the College Hockey America Conference dissolved after the 2009-10 season, four teams were left without a home: Robert Morris (located near Pittsburgh), Niagara (N.Y.), Bemidji (Minn.) State and Alabama-Huntsville. Only the Chargers could not find a new conference, their application to the Central Collegiate Hockey Association denied even though the league had an odd number of teams (11).

The conference did not give a reason, saying only in a news release, "At this time, we have chosen to maintain our membership at its current level."

Alabama-Huntsville is the only independent in Division I, an untenable scheduling and financial situation.

"It is absolutely crucial that we find a conference home in order to keep this thing rolling," athletic director E.J. Brophy said. "The only people that can be independents are people like Notre Dame football and Texas if they wanted to pull it off. Those people have monster budgets."

In 1950, Dr. Wernher von Braun brought his team of rocket scientists and engineers from Texas to Huntsville, and they built the rockets the United States used to send astronauts to the moon. Many of the engineers were originally from the North and had children who played hockey.

In 1979, Alabama-Huntsville launched its club team. Its classification has fluctuated throughout the years — the Chargers won two Division II national championships before the NCAA disbanded Division II hockey in 1998 — and has been Division I since 1999.

The program is guaranteed to play in Division I through the 2012-13 season. That in itself is a victory for supporters. Malcolm Portera, the then-interim president and chancellor of the entire University of Alabama system, announced on Oct. 24 that hockey would become a club sport after this season.

The school says hockey's travel budget is more than that of its other six men's programs combined and hockey comprises 40 percent of the total student aid budget for men's sports. The annual hockey budget is currently close to $1 million and expected to increase to $1.5 million with the school providing only about 43 percent of the funds.

The program received a temporary stay on Dec. 6 from new president Robert Altenkirch.

Geof Morris, a 2002 graduate and co-founder of SaveUAHHockey.com has helped lead the effort to save the Chargers. Also active in the campaign are former players Nathan Bowen (2000) and Jared Ross ('05), who played 13 games in the NHL over two seasons.

"We joke that you don't get the H in UAH without hockey," Morris said. "It's the one event that you can get thousands of people to at UAH on a regular basis."

Brophy sees this week as an opportunity to secure the program's future.

"We'll be trying to wine and dine some people from conferences," he said. "That is the No. 1 goal. We're hoping to be behind the big bank of microphones this summer in Huntsville announcing that we'll be going into a conference because we need it."

Division I hockey … in Alabama? Yes, but for how long? 03/31/12 [Last modified: Saturday, March 31, 2012 9:30pm]
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