There was a time not too long ago that one of college hockey’s hotbeds was actually hot.
Away from the typical collection of hockey’s elite in Minnesota or Michigan or Massachusetts sits Alabama-Huntsville, the only men’s hockey program south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Less than 20 years ago, the team took home a pair of Division II national titles and the “Hockey Capital of the South,” as former Alabama governor George C. Wallace called the program, was roaring.But that was a different lifetime for the program.
Since March 14, 1998, when Alabama-Huntsville won its second DII title in three years, things have been a rollercoaster for the Chargers.
The Chargers made the climb back to DI in time for the 1998-99 season. They won the College Hockey America tournament and reached the NCAA tournament in 2007 and again in ’10. But things have been downhill since.
The CHA folded after the 2010 season and left the Chargers scrambling to find a conference. The 2010-11 season produced only four wins. Then on Oct. 24, 2011, the Chargers reached their lowest of lows; the school announced that the team would be dropped to the club level following the season.
“When we folded it was at the beginning of my sophomore year and that was the weirdest day of my life so far,” senior Brice Geoffrion said. “We all went back to the same dorm into the same room and sat in silence, ‘Like what do we do?’ ”
Not having a conference and change in the school’s administration brought the end of the program.
“What happened was the current president, who loved hockey, had left and an interim president came in and immediately decided to cut the program,” Geoffrion said. “On the day, we met in a conference room and the interim president was pretty straight forward and said that we’re discontinuing the program and no one said anything. He left and it was kind of like a state of shock.”But much as a rollercoaster inevitably will head up again, things started changing for the program. The school hired Robert A. Altenkirch as president and he brought the program back to DI status – as long as it found a conference.
“It was tough,” senior Alex Allan said. “We went a few semesters where we went three weeks to a month off. But honestly, I think we got closer as a team. We spent a lot of time together and developed some pretty good relationships.”
Amid the uncertainty in the program brought tough results on the ice. Since the start of the loss to Miami (Ohio) in the first round of the 2010 NCAA tournament, the program has slightly more wins (10) as head coaches (four).
Allan and Geoffrion were part of an 11-member freshmen class. Now, only four of those players remain on the roster.
“At the time [the program folded] we were all like we came here not only for an education but to also play college hockey,” Geoffrion said. “So of course we were all talking to other schools and it was like junior hockey again. You have all this pressure to impress the other team and hopefully they’ll talk to you and offer you something.
“That day they announced it was back was just a relief. Everything just came off the shoulders. You knew that the future was stable.”
Things got even better in 2012. That year, Alabama-Huntsville sponsored the Frozen Four in Tampa, Fla., and in June, it applied for membership in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.
The future was fully cemented in on Jan. 17, 2013, when the WCHA added Alabama-Huntsville, putting the Chargers in a conference with Alaska-Fairbanks and Alaska-Anchorage. This year, with the two teams from Alaska as well as making trips to Boston and a few to Minnesota and Michigan, has put the Chargers on the road for more than 30,000 miles.
Most of the time the team travels by bus. In those cases, the team will leave Tuesday night before the game and travel the 14 or 16 hours on the sleeper bus.
“Usually a big group of us will sit in the front and watch TV or put in a movie,” Geoffrion said. “There’s a group of guys who play this card game that gets intense. You can hear them yelling from the front of the bus. Other guys are talking, some of them are doing homework so that’s about it.”
But those are the 20-something-year-old players. What about the coaches?
“If I was 60 I would be saying my back’s dying on those sleepers but I’ll be honest,” head coach Mike Corbett, 42, said, “I always have liked the bus and I always liked the travel. ... We’re just a bunch of guys going on a business trip. I like that aspect, I really do.”
Corbett is something of a late addition to the Charger rollercoaster. After spending 10 years as an assistant at Air Force, where he coached against Alabama-Huntsville in the CHA, he was hired on July 8, 2013, as the third coach in three years and fourth in five.
As tough as the previous years may had been on the team, it was ultimately the school’s affirmation to hockey that convinced Corbett to take the job.
“You’ve got to feel as a coach you have the ability to put the things in place you showed them in your portfolio and your ideas,” Corbett said. “You’ve got to be able to say to the kids that you’re going to have a coach for four years.”While the train on Alabama-Huntsville’s rollercoaster may be heading up, it hasn’t been a smooth ride. Through the first 34 games of this season, the Chargers have a 1-32-1 record.
“The record has been a battle,” Corbett said. “We knew what we were getting into and I knew what I was getting into when I got here. But it’s been a battle because I knew the league was good and I knew the teams and I knew the teams were quality. I knew we were a quart low but the great thing on the hockey side is I got 26 kids who come out and battle every day. It could be a lot worse if we had kids who didn’t want to come out and get better.”
While it has been a battle for wins there have been bright moments for the Chargers. Against Minnesota State-Mankato on Feb. 15, freshman goaltender Carmine Guerriero set the program record with 61 saves, though it came in a 4-1 loss.
The one time the Chargers did end the game with a win, they did it in style. Against Bowling Green on Dec. 7, Prince scored a goal 12:30 into the third to tie the game at 3 before Frank Misuraca scored with four seconds left in the overtime to give the Chargers something to celebrate.
“Every time we come back into the locker room after a loss, no one’s talking to each other. That time, everyone was smiling,” said Guerriero, who made 41 saves that game.
Though that energetic locker room has happened only once this season, the Chargers have been close to avoiding a loss multiple times this season. Seven of the 32 loses have been by one goal. On Feb. 21 against Lake Superior State, the Chargers brought a 1-0 lead into the second period before giving up two goals in a two-minute span en route to a 2-1 loss.
Talk to any Charger and they will say the same thing: it’s been those five-minute-or-so spans of poor play that has doomed them.
“When you start to lose a lot, you start to lose that edge of consistency,” freshman forward Joakim Broberg said. “I think if our team is going to be successful we have to work hard. I think it comes down to being a little smart too and we are working on that.”
It’s those strong stretches, as well as college hockey’s changing power landscape, that has given the team hope that this rollercoaster could soon find itself at its highest peak – and stay there.
“You look at all different programs like UMass-Lowell who a couple years ago was like us or like 10 years ago, Minnesota State-Mankato were in just the same position,” sophomore Jack Prince said. “College hockey isn’t just powerhouses anymore. Every team every year vies and goes for the national championship so it’s hard to say [how long it will be for the Chargers to compete]. It could be next year, who knows. ... If we get the right couple of players and we keep working as hard as we can this summer and guys are working hard and making sure they are getting better, it could definitely be that way.”