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So, before the start of the third season, Ritch placed an ad in The Hockey News, hoping to draw northerners to supplement his dwindling reserves of homegrown hockey talent. More than 300 responded. And Doug Ross, a member of the U.S. Olympic hockey team that won the bronze medal in 1976, became the Charger coach in 1982 after seeing an ad for the position in the same publication. By 1987 the team had gone from a club program to a Division I program. Although the Chargers chose to drop back to Division II before the start of last season when a division championship was established, the athletic department still commits more than 50% of its budget to a sport that is not played in a single Alabama high school.
It has been nearly a decade since a local boy played a regular shift at UAH. And more than a few Charger fans would prefer a return to the good old days, before there were hockey scholarships and marquee-name rust-belt opponents and northerners with their Walter Mitty dreams of professional hockey careers—the days when the team was just a bunch of guys from the north Alabama hills, however aesthetically displeasing their play on the ice might have been.
"I remember when almost all of our opponents were from south of the Mason-Dixon line," says Brian Kelly, who was among the first northerners to play for UAH, in the early '80s. " Vanderbilt. Tennessee. Auburn. Georgia Tech. They were all club teams. But we'd be able to fill up the joint for a weekend series and leave 'em believing we had beaten the football team—left us believing we had beaten the football team."
Alas, such teams featured talent that suggested it had been skimmed from the football team, albeit from the fourth-string. In six years at the club level, 1979 to 1985, UAH went 160-22-5, won three national club championships and outscored its opponents by better than a 5-1 ratio. Ritch proved to be a country slicker who could play a crowd better than a television evangelist. "We'd be up 19-0 against some school like Auburn, and Joe was hollering for 20," says Kelly. "Understandably that drove the crowd wild."
Fans loved the swaggering style of those Chargers—who soon adopted the nickname "the Von Braun Bullies"—and bench-clearing brawls like the one on a January night in 1980 against Vanderbilt, when in the third period a fight broke out at center ice. Soon the entire rink was littered with flailing bodies. "Entire rink?" says Ritch. "It was the entire building. We had players chasing each other through the corridors underneath the stands. That might have turned the whole program around. A month later fans were piling into the building so fast the fire marshal had to turn away a couple thousand."
Several of the southern club programs have folded. And none of them ever made the jump to NCAA status, leaving UAH to find its opponents elsewhere. Nonetheless, Charger fans still come out in respectable numbers—though it has been years since Von Braun officials needed the services of the fire marshal to maintain order. Last season the Chargers averaged more than 2,500 spectators a game, and considerably more showed up during the silent season between the end of the college gridiron campaign in January and the beginning of football spring practice three months later.
Von Braun still retains much of its flavor from the program's palmier days in the '80s. During breaks in the action cheerleaders turn cartwheels in the upper level as the music from a spirited band washes over the crowd. At the beginning of each period Sweet Home Alabama blares from the loudspeakers—though it has been a long time since more than a few Chargers called Alabama home. Perhaps such things are a bit provincial. "But that's what gives UAH its identity," says senior right wing Graham Fair. "That's what allows hockey to survive here."
This season, the Chargers were off to an 8-1-1 start as of Dec. 2, including an impressive 4-2 win over traditional Division I power Providence College on Nov. 27. In his 12 seasons at UAH, Ross has a winning percentage just a shade under .600. "I don't know how much that matters, though," says Ross. "Folks here want a winning team—don't get me wrong. But to have seen the sport grow as much as it has, to be the only NCAA program in the South, that might be enough for them."