On July 23, 1987, the Alabama Huntsville athletic department called a press conference. The school’s hockey team had just completed a 20-win season – its first in Division II. The university announced that the Chargers hockey team was elevating its program to Division I – effective immediately. The NCAA did not sponsor Division II hockey so the move allowed the school to play against the best competition at the collegiate level with a chance to participate in the NCAA postseason.
The Chargers first opponent in Division I was the Maine Black Bears on October 30, 1987. It was a true test to start this new era as the Black Bears were nationally ranked and coming off a 24-win season that ended in the national tournament. The Chargers put two goals on the scoreboard that evening but it wasn’t enough as Maine defeated the host team 8-2.
The Chargers ended their inaugural Division I season with an 11-18-1 record. The schedule for the 1987-88 season was a mix between Division I and II opponents. It is common for programs to schedule a mix of Division I opponents in the first season at the highest collegiate level. The season saw the team travel to Alaska in December to play a total of four games against Alaska and Alaska Anchorage in six days. The Chargers also faced off against St. Cloud State four times in the month of February. The season ended on a high note with a victory over Queens University of Ontario in the Alabama Face-Off Tournament that the school hosted.
As with all hockey programs, Alabama Huntsville has had its ups and downs throughout the years. The program dropped back down to Division II in 1992 and ended up winning two national championships over Bemidji State in 1996 and 1998. After six seasons in Division II, it was elevated back to Division I in 1998 and then joined its first Division I conference – College Hockey America – in 1999. The Chargers participated in two Division I national tournament games; losing both in 2007 and 2010. Alabama Huntsville was admitted to the WCHA conference in 2013. It was an historic moment for this program. On its own proverbial island, the Chargers hockey team is a one-of-a-kind program in the southern United States. This is a program that has defied the odds and keeps pushing forward.
Its toughest test yet came seven years later. In response to COVID-19, Alabama Huntsville announced in May 2020 that the hockey program would be discontinued. However, the university stated that the program would be reinstated if the community could raise $750,000. Pledges from alumni and the general public surpassed that goal in one week so the program ended up participating in the WCHA for the 2020-21 season. With the majority of teams in the WCHA leaving to create a newly-reformed CCHA for the 2021-22 season, Alabama Huntsville announced on May 5, 2021, that the university was suspending the hockey program. The school officials and the alumni group that helped provide funds the previous season had both agreed to discontinue the program if they were unable to secure a new conference. There is a caveat that the hockey program will be reinstated if a new conference can be secured. If that happens, Alabama Huntsville will not be eligible for conference play for at least one year after receiving an invitation. This leaves the door open for a possible return in 2022-23.
If we’ve learned one thing about college hockey over the past eight seasons, it’s that the conference structure is not set in stone. There have been major conference realignments as well as several new teams that have joined Division I. While it looks almost certain that Alabama Huntsville won’t play hockey in the 2021-22 season, we’re not going to rule anything out regarding its future. A conference invitation could be in its future along with a new lease on life for the Alabama Huntsville Chargers hockey team.
Photo Credit: UAH Magazine, Winter 1988. Archives and Special Collections, M. Louis Salmon Library at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.