Last Friday night Alabama-Huntsville lost 2--1 at home to Western Michigan in front of 3,873 fans, the fourth-largest home crowd in College Hockey America conference history. If Chargers fans want to set the attendance record, they have just 10 games to do it. The four-team CHA is disbanding after this season, its 10th, because UAH's conference rivals are jumping to larger leagues. Last year's NCAA champion, Bemidji State, is going to the Western College Hockey Association. Niagara and Robert Morris are headed to Atlantic Hockey.
UAH? In August the Chargers applied for membership in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association but were rejected, making them the only Division I hockey team without a conference for next year. The program, which was founded in 1979, has long held its status as the sole D-I hockey team below the Mason-Dixon Line as a point of pride. But now the school's unique location makes it an undesirable conference mate. "In today's economy, travel has really moved up the ladder as a concern," CCHA commissioner Tom Anastos says. "[That was] very prevalent in the discussion [with UAH]."
The UAH program is more than a geographical novelty: The Chargers won the CHA title in 2007, and on Oct. 9 they upset No. 5 Notre Dame in South Bend. (They were 3--3 through Sunday.) The school has already lined up 26 games as an independent for 2010--11 (opponents include Michigan State and Wisconsin) and is confident it can fill out a full schedule—especially if the NCAA tweaks its rules to make games against UAH exempt from the 34-game season limit. Schools in Alaska and Hawaii already have such exemptions, allowing teams to slip extra revenue-producing home dates into their schedules. "We aren't going to throw away everything we've built over 30 years here just because we're not in a league," says UAH athletic director Jim Harris. "We owe it not only to the institution but also the fans and the student-athletes to at least give it a shot."