UAH Chargers blazing hockey trail in SEC country

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FRIDAY ON ASN: Alaska Fairbanks at Alabama Huntsville, 8 p.m. ET (click logo for local listings)

gueOne of the first things Alabama Huntsville’s hockey team did when it arrived at The Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks, N.D., last weekend for a non-conference series against North Dakota was take a tour of the facility.

The temperature outside on New Year’s Eve day — prior to their practice in Grand Forks — was a balmy 5 degrees, although Accuweather said it “felt” like minus-2.

The Chargers had opted to meet in Minneapolis after the Christmas break, leaving 75 degree weather in Huntsville for two days of practice before taking a six-hour bus ride through Fargo to Grand Forks, a city USA Today proclaimed last February to be the second coldest in America behind Fairbanks, Alaska.

Truth be told, outside temperatures really don’t matter when teams arrive at The Ralph because there is no need to go outside. The facility is spacious enough for teams to drive their bus inside the confines to load and unload.

The Ralph is a $104 million spectacle plush with granite hallways, leather seats, massive suites, training facilities and a game room for players that would make most pro teams blush. Before UAH did its pre-workout stretch last Thursday, several Chargers finished the tour from the visitor bench, looking up at the giant scoreboard and seven national title banners hanging above.

The series could have been billed as a battle of the “Haves vs. Have-Nots.”

While the Chargers have their own storied tradition covering 30 years, mostly as a Division II power, the school briefly dropped the program after the 2011-2012 season for financial reasons and has been scrapping its way back to prominence with a renewed commitment to Division I hockey.

In a way, they face an uphill battle most NCAA Division I teams never dream of facing.

UAH is one of three campuses that make up the Alabama “Roll Tide” school system, meaning they put on skates in the heart of football country. What Nick Saban is to Alabama, hockey is to UAH — the school’s identity.

UAH has the largest hockey arena in the WCHA with 5,800 seats, but sellouts are rare. Even at the New Year’s Eve practice some players were excited to get back to the hotel to watch Alabama rip apart Michigan State in the FBS college football semifinals.

So games at second-ranked North Dakota, where outdoor rinks are spread across the city and filled with kids of all ages playing pickup games, are measuring sticks on where the team needs to be and how far the Chargers have come since joining the WCHA two years ago.

If it can happen in Grand Forks, the third largest city in North Dakota, Corbett believes it can happen in Huntsville, where T-shirts and flip-flops are the norm year-round.

“I told the guys when we got in to skate around and enjoy this and take it all in because there aren’t arenas like this,” Corbett said. “You want them to get used to it and not be intimidated by it because it is one of the best atmospheres to play a game. I told them to skate and have fun, and we’re the type of team where this atmosphere will probably pump us up more than the home team. We play in the WCHA and in some nice buildings, but this is the Taj Mahal of college hockey. It’s been here for awhile, but not every kid in college hockey gets to play here and when you do it’s a special place.”

If you love the underdog, you’ll love watching the scrappy UAH Chargers Friday when they play host to Alaska Fairbanks on ASN.

Both teams are clawing their way up for the WCHA’s eighth playoff spot, with the Nanooks sitting at 5-10-2 overall and  3-8-4 in the WCHA, and UAH at 4-14-2 and 2-10-2.

“It’s a dogfight,” Corbett said. “You’ve got the top three teams in the league — Minnesota State, Bowling Green and Michigan Tech — and then you’ve got everyone else battling. If you can get four points in a weekend you’re going to jump some teams.”

The game is a battle of WCHA rivals, and though the Chargers were swept, 1-0 and 4-1 by UND, Corbett feels good about his team coming off last week’s performance.

“You hate to lose but we can take a lot of positives out of this weekend heading into our WCHA schedule,” Corbett said. “We had our chances, particularly on Friday. Carmine (Guerriero, goalie) has been playing that way all season for us. Hopefully a weekend against a team like this will give him some of the recognition he deserves.”

North Dakota’s roster is loaded with 11 draft picks, and even with Brock Boeser and Nick Schmaltz missing the series while competing for Team USA at the World Championships in Finland, most expected the Fighting Hawks to walk through a UAH team ranked 58th out of 60 teams in the PairWise rankings.

Guerriero, however, was nearly perfect in net. The junior goalie stopped 38 of 39 shots on Friday and followed Saturday with 34 more saves, keeping the Chargers within 2-1 until just under two minutes remained in the game. As a result, the atmosphere that can be loud and crazy at The Ralph was mostly quiet much of the weekend.

Friday’s shutout was the first of the season against UAH and the fourth in a row for UND goalie Cam Johnson. Saturday, the Chargers ended Johnson’s shutout streak at 298 minutes, 25 seconds, second longest in college hockey history to Lake Superior State’s Blaine Lacher’s 375:01 streak in 1994.

Johnson now leads the NCAA with both a 1.07 goals-against average and a .957 save percentage, but Guerriero was equally if not more impressive over the weekend.

Corbett’s next step with UAH is to get the team more offensive-minded. In the most complimentary of ways, UAH may be best described as a ragtag, hodgepodge group of players recruited from four countries (United States, Canada, England and Slovakia), five Canadian provinces, and eight states with nary an NHL draft pick among them.

What they lack in overall talent they make up for in discipline in front of their own net and they will be taking momentum into this weekend’s series. They’ve already finished their recruiting for next season and are starting on recruits two years down the road.

Corbett will go anywhere to find the players to help his program.

“We have to go places to get players and it shows there are players everywhere,” Corbett said. “We’re building something here. We’ve got a youth program with 850 kids in Atlanta, Huntsville and Nashville. It’s our triangle. We’ve got a strong hockey tradition with over 30 years of play, but getting on ASN will be big for us to get some national attention.

“We still answer questions like what league are we in, are we Division I. This program has a lot to offer. We’re getting there.”

Above: Alabama Huntsville hockey has come a long way since joining the WCHA two years ago. (Courtesy Doug Eagan)

Dave Dondoneau

Dave Dondoneau is a freelance writer based in Honolulu