The University of Alabama in Huntsville, along with alumni and supporters, are committing $17 million to preserve and enhance the only NCAA Division I hockey team in the southeastern United States.
The program was slated to be eliminated in May for budgetary reasons due to the coronavirus pandemic but was spared because of last-minute fundraising efforts led by prominent alumni and former UAH players, including Minnesota Wild goalie Cam Talbot.
“This gives us longevity, long-term support,” said Talbot, who played for the school from 2007-10. “Just with that, and the support the commitment from both the alumni and the administration to continue to fight for the program, I’m obviously more optimistic than I was three, four, five months ago.”
The university and former UAH players Sheldon Wolitski, founder and board chairman of The Select Group, and Taso Sofikitis, president and CEO of Maynards Industries, have pledged to provide a combined $17 million over 10 years for the hockey program. UAH hockey begins its 42nd season on Nov. 20 against Robert Morris University, located near Pittsburgh.
“The UAH hockey program has a long and cherished history,” university president Darren Dawson said. “We are truly grateful for the vital support from our alumni and community as we work to ensure that the legacy of UAH hockey continues.”
The NHL considers UAH and its legacy an integral part of growing the game geographically in so-called non-traditional areas of the U.S.
A recently-formed UAH hockey advisory board tasked with helping to improve the program includes Nashville Predators president and chief operating officer Sean Henry, Tampa Bay Lightning executive vice president of communications Bill Wickett and Philadelphia Flyers assistant general manager Brent Flahr.
“In Tampa, we have had a soft spot for Alabama-Huntsville since partnering with the university in hosting the 2012 NCAA Frozen Four in our arena,” Wickett said. “As a non-traditional hockey market, we see value in having southern-based college hockey programs and we’ll do what we can to continue to support grow-the-game initiatives wherever they are based. We hope college hockey can enjoy a rebirth of sorts in Huntsville, perhaps serving as the inspiration for others to develop Division I programs as Arizona State recently has done.”
The financial commitment to UAH hockey is an initial step toward long-term security for the program. The funds are contingent upon the team joining another conference after the 2020-21 season. UAH has played in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association since 2013, but the future of the 10-team conference is uncertain because seven are leaving for a reformed Central Collegiate Hockey Association in 2021-22.
“The biggest thing still, even with the support, we need to get into a conference,” said Talbot, who has played 314 NHL games for the Flyers, New York Rangers, Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames. “I think it might be a little bit easier now since we’ve got the money, we’ve got the backing, we’ve got the support from the university, the alumni and everybody. Hopefully, now we just need college hockey to give us an opportunity to get into a new conference.”
UAH began its hockey program in 1979 as a club sport and was a three-time national champion. The program elevated to the NCAA Division II ranks and won the national championship in 1996 and 1998.
The university made two NCAA Division I tournament appearances, including in 2010 with Talbot in goal.
UAH has produced several professional players, including Talbot and former forward Jared Ross, who was the first Alabama-born player to reach the NHL and played 13 games for the Flyers from 2008-10.
Washington Capitals forward Nic Dowd didn’t attend UAH, but he grew up in Huntsville and was a regular at home games at Von Braun Center.
“I spent all my time going to Alabama-Huntsville games with my dad, watching guys like Jared Ross, who was kind of like a big-time idol to me growing up,” said Dowd, who played at St. Cloud State University and was selected by the Los Angeles Kings in the seventh round (No. 198) of the 2009 NHL Draft. “I attended all the UAH hockey camps that were put on by the university.”
UAH hockey’s presence has helped boost the number of registered players in Alabama from 922 in 2002-03 to 2,164 in 2019-20, according to USA Hockey statistics.
Henry said the Nashville area youth hockey benefitted from UAH’s presence.
“As we continue to grow youth hockey in Smashville and throughout it, you want to make sure there’s an opportunity for kids to play at the next level at all levels,” Henry said. “And to have a tangible program in our backyard and to see it thrive has meant a lot to the growth of our youth hockey.”
Wolitski said he hopes a revitalized UAH program can also become a leader in the southeast in promoting diversity and inclusion in the sport.
“We’re in a very unique geographic position to really make a dent to the commitment to diversity and inclusion in hockey,” he said. “We realize that, with the demographics of where we are, we kind to a lot more that and we want to amp it up a little bit.”
UAH has two Black players on its roster this season: sophomore forward Peyton Francis and freshman defenseman Ayodele Adeniye, who learned to play hockey in Ohio through the Columbus Ice Hockey Club, which is part of the NHL’s “Hockey Is For Everyone Initiative.”
Adeniye said he’s thrilled about being part of a revitalized UAH hockey program and is looking forward to doing what he can to getting others interested in the sport.
“I’m just excited to try to be a role model for kids coming up that are Black and brown so they have someone they can see that is playing at the highest level at my age and that they know that they can do it too,” Adeniye said.