By Andrew Vitalis, Special to WCHA.com
Things had hit rock bottom.
Despite powering through the Division II ranks and skating to two national titles in the 1990's, after moving to Division I, things went slower than expected for the Alabama Huntsville hockey program. And then it happened. After the old College Hockey America (CHA) conference folded in 2010 and the Chargers struggled to find their path as an independent, the announcement came that the 2011-12 season would be their last as a Division I program. It didn't matter that the decision was reversed soon after it came out. It didn't matter that the Chargers eventually accepted an offer by the Western Collegiate Hockey Association to join them and remain a Division I program. It didn't matter that UAH joined one of the strongest conferences in the country for the 2013-14 season as an official member of the WCHA. It didn't matter, because at the time the damage had already been done. By the time new head coach Mike Corbett stepped onto campus for the 2013-14 campaign, he wasn't just battling the stigma of college hockey in Alabama or the fact that UAH was the southern-most Division I college hockey program in the nation. Corbett was also dealing with the fact that UAH's hockey program was once on life support, and whether it was reality or not, people wondered if it would eventually die.
"Just letting everyone know that we have a solid foundation and our kids are going to be here for the long haul," commented Corbett when asked about some of the early challenges he faced as Chargers head coach. "That was the first step- just being able to educate people on the fact that hey, we are here. Then it's the slow building process. It's not the CHA it's the WCHA now. Going from an independent team and then going into the WCHA; the commitment to the programs in the WCHA and the traditions they have- that's something we had to educate people on and educate our administration on when it came to what it takes to be a competitive team in the WCHA. We still need to educate everyone on that. It's a process and it's never going to go as fast as you want it to go."
Corbett knew that it would take time. He also knew, no matter what story the wins and losses were going to tell; the plan had to be followed. The first step was recruiting the talent to build the program back up.
During the 2013-14 season, the Chargers' first under Corbett's watch, UAH skated to just two wins. Both victories came against conference opponents and both were by one goal. The following year the Chargers added six more wins, finishing 8-26-4 overall. If you ask long-time Charger fans, looking back on it now, the 2014-15 season marked the first time the program truly began to breathe again thanks in large part to a core group of freshmen who skated onto campus with a stick in their hands and a jump in their stride. Leading the way was then-freshman Max McHugh; a forward sniper from Seattle, WA who had just won a USHL title with Dubuque. Joining McHugh (among others) was also Brandon Parker and Josh Kestner- a Huntsville native. Despite finishing the 2014-15 season by winning just once over their final 14 games, the Chargers showed the type of skill and promise Corbett had envisioned in his mind when he set the plan in motion the year before. Of their eight wins, seven came against WCHA opponents, including home sweeps of Northern Michigan and Alaska Anchorage. If Corbett and the Charger faithful were gauging things by baby steps, UAH's 14-15 campaign was more of step taken by a toddler. Fast forward to the present, now in his senior season, McHugh has finished either first or second in scoring on the team every year.
"If you notice, we don't have a ton of USHL players. Max was a player from Dubuque after they won a national championship and we went after him and he saw the opportunity. If you look at it, Max has pretty much been our leading scorer his first three years," commented Corbett. "There was never a promise but the opportunity we talked to him about when we were recruiting him; we were able to fulfill that. We told him we would put him in a position to be a top-end player in the WCHA and on our team and he's been able to do that. Both sides are very pleased with the way it turned out."
The significance of that season, and the success of the freshman class in particular, was in the fact that it started to show hockey fans watching from a distance that Alabama Huntsville was back .and building. The following season the Chargers netted more talent, bringing in nine more freshmen, including a rock-solid defenseman from the BCHL named Kurt Gosselin. At the end of the 2015-16 season, seven of the team's top nine scorers were either freshmen or sophomores.
"Kurt Gosselin is another marquee player who comes to mind as a player who we were able to successfully recruit and someone who has been huge for our program. Coming from the British Columbia Hockey League (BCHL), we gave him that opportunity from day one and he hasn't let us down. He was an all-WCHA player last year (2016-17 season) and we believe he's on track to be able to do that again. I think that's the biggest thing; what we are offering kids are those opportunities to come in here and be the player they want to be and be the player that they believe they can become," added Corbett. "We want to invest in the player and we want the player to invest in our program. Ultimately, we know this as coaches- those opportunities have to be real. We are honest with our players and we let them know what the opportunity is and we educate them on that. The right player understands that opportunity is the most important thing in the recruiting process, not necessarily the front of the jersey."
Opportunity has started to knock and it continues to. Last season, the Chargers skated to their best win-loss total since Corbett took over, finishing with an overall record of 9-22-3. All nine wins were against WCHA opponents, including weekend sweeps over Ferris State, Northern Michigan and Alaska Anchorage. Of their top 11 scorers from a year ago, just one was a senior. Now six games into their 2017-18 campaign, Alabama Huntsville's roster once again is littered with a group of newcomers; only this time, Corbett's rookies are joined by the same group of then-freshmen who started the Chargers' climb back to program stability four years ago. Players like McHugh, Kestner and Parker are now seniors, leading a talented core of pucksters who have slowly, yet surely, helped put UAH hockey back on the map. The cycle is complete. The plans is working.
"The recruiting process was slow to start. My freshman year, we had eight freshman coming in and that was three years after the program folded. Not a lot of players wanted to come to a team where the program was shaky," recalled Kestner. "Since then, the process has been slow but it's certainly grown over the past four years. I like where it's heading. The recruiting is only getting better. We have seven freshmen this year, they are all great players and hopefully our future gets even better."
"When I came in as a freshman with a new coaching staff; when looking back at it now in my senior year, it's greatly improved," added Parker, a Faribault, Minn. native. "With Nashville being right up the road and how they have done over the past few years, the hockey community in Huntsville and in this area has grown so much compared to what it was when I first came. To see more people get involved in Huntsville hockey and how things have grown in the area is unique. Especially coming from Minnesota where hockey is life up there, coming down here, you don't expect to see hockey like this in Alabama. It's something cool to see that hockey all around here is growing."
Excitement and momentum are words being used a lot these days in Huntsville. Thanks to a variety of circumstances, what used to be a difficult sell for Corbett and his staff has all of a sudden become one of their biggest selling points. Among the surges of momentum has been the recent success of the professional hockey teams in the area; including the Nashville Predators most-recent run to the NHL Stanley Cup Finals. In short, people are starting to pay attention and having the words hockey and Alabama in the same sentence is no longer a typo.
"I went up there for game six. I was a fan like everyone else; I was as goofy as they were," chuckled Corbett, when asked about last year's Stanley Cup Finals. "We are 90 minutes away (from Nashville) and it's only going to help us. Our youth hockey is already very strong, but we don't have enough ice right now. We are trying to find more ways, but that's only going to help us by getting kids more interested in hockey in Huntsville. Having things that like happen; people watch the games and learn about the games and they educate themselves about the game that's only going to generate more interest."
Atmosphere. Change. Location. Wait a minute- location?
Ironically, what used to be a major stumbling block for Corbett when it came to recruiting has opened up as well. As hockey continues to grow throughout the country and across the world, Corbett is starting to see more players coming out of areas that have traditionally been hockey dead zones. Ten years ago, having a player from Florida or Georgia on a roster would have been unheard of, but not in today's game. Thanks to the abundance of junior hockey programs, talent is coming from anywhere and everywhere; including the Southeast part of the United States. Alabama Huntsville, while the furthest Division I program to hockey players from the Upper Midwest, is the closest to players who call the Southeast District home.
"We are the closest Division I school to the Southeast District; places like Florida and Georgia, and in our own state and also Tennessee. You're starting to see those types of marque players coming out of those states. We have to be able to do a good job recruiting our area," mentioned Corbett. "We are lucky because our area covers eight to ten states. That's the biggest thing we are trying to do, just take care of our area, because there are a lot of good athletes coming out of the Southeast District. We want to be first in line and we want to be the first ones to know about them."
This year's Charger team covers players from 11 different states, along with Slovakia and Canada (10 players). Of the 11 states represented, two hail from Alabama, two from Georgia and one from Florida (the states of Maine, Connecticut, New Jersey, Washington, Alaska, Minnesota, Michigan and Colorado are also on the list). It's a unique mix of talent from the across the county who come into Huntsville each season with the goal of putting their stamp on UAH hockey. Players like Adam Wilcox who grew up in Georgia, and after junior hockey stints in Canada and Alaska, wanted to come back home to play college hockey.
"I got to see UAH have its up and downs, and things definitely hit close to rock bottom when they almost lost their program. Now, we are getting a lot of momentum and getting the right kind of players. We're producing. Even around campus you can see the momentum shift a little bit from the traditional southern sports to the hockey program. It's fun to see how the momentum has grown from when I was watching them growing up to where it is now," stated Wilcox. "I think having players come in from all over the place actually makes us closer. Everyone brings their background and it turns into one big melting pot. It's special. Sometimes you see teams with guys all from one area, where we have a bunch of different players from all over. As coach Corbett says, we all bring something to the barbeque and we need to bring what we are good at. Everyone brings their own style and we adapt into one unit. I think it definitely brings us closer."
"That's what it takes. A lot of kids want to become Division I players. A lot of kids talk about being Division I players. To come to a program like ours and truly help us build this and help put us on the map; it's hard and it's not for everybody. We have a high expectation," continued Corbett, when asked about recruiting players from across the nation and across the world. "Our culture is continuing to get stronger and stronger every year. We have a very high expectation for kids coming in. We don't have the brand-new arena or the brand-new this or that, but we have everything you need to get to the level you want to get to as a player, and part of it is educating kids on that. A little bit of it is on the player and you have to go out there and find that player. Let's be honest, everyone wants to talk about it, but you have to sit down and look them in the eyes and you have to truly believe they are going to fulfill their end of the bargain as much as we're going to fulfill our end of the bargain."
It's a commitment. That word has been spoken a lot on the Alabama Huntsville campus since Corbett has stepped onto the scene. Commitment by the university to help maintain a growing program; commitment by the coaching staff to build a successful program; commitment by the players to give the best they have to the program. Everyone is on board.
So far this season, despite the 1-5-0 record through their first six games, that level of commitment has been on display. Thanks to a scheduling anomaly, the Chargers' 2017-18 schedule might be the toughest (and the most unusual) in the nation. UAH plays their first eight games on the road, followed by their next six at home. In early December they hit the road again for 12 straight games, meaning that from early December through the Christmas break and into early January, Corbett and his players won't be on campus for over a month. After the challenging road trip, Alabama Huntsville returns home for eight games to close out the regular season. It's the type of schedule that would kill most teams, but for Corbett and his squad, like everything else that has come their way over the past several years, they are taking it in stride and trying to turn it into a positive. Most recently, after a 22-hour bus ride to Michigan Tech, UAH skated to a series split with Tech before hitting the road to Cornell again a few days later. The life of a Charger.
"In an ideal world you wouldn't want to be away from home for six weeks at a time, which is unfortunate, but you have to play the hand you are dealt. But, you become closer to the team because you are on the road so much," mentioned Kestner. "After Christmas break we go from Bemidji to Alaska Anchorage to Alaska Fairbanks without coming home. It's a lot of time with your teammates. You get to know them a lot more and you in the process, you continue to build that team chemistry that you wouldn't normally have if you never experienced those types of things."
"The opportunity for the team to be together, that's a huge part of it," continued Parker. "We are all in the same boat. Our travel is more than it is for some of the other teams, but that's where you develop a solid bond with your team. Being able to experience that as a group helps with the team chemistry on the ice and communication with one another, which is huge."
"You have to be detailed and you have to plan. You can't write your plan in stone," remarked Corbett when commenting on the travel schedule. "We pride ourselves on having good communication with our players. Sometimes that means we don't practice every day. I'm the guy who says the best day of practice is your day off, because that means the next day is going to be even better because we have energy. We know in our program that if we don't have energy, that's not giving us a chance to win. There is a lot of planning involved but it's done in pencil so you can erase and change."
It's a fitting statement that can also be applied to the dark days of UAH hockey, when the talk of a folding program dominated the headlines. Now just a handful of years later, thanks in large part to the plan Corbett and his staff put in place when they arrived, the uncertainly surrounding the program has been erased and a new story is being written.
"We know where we are at within the 60 Division I schools. Bottom line is we have to work a lot harder than most schools and what we want to do is ultimately get players who want to be a part of our program. Players who want to be here and want to help build here. We want players who understand what we have, have a little chip on their shoulder and want to help put us on the map," commented Corbett. "Progress is slow but we've been able to build a solid foundation. Now that we've been able to do that, we are starting to move in the direction we want to move. The alumni have been great. Our President is behind us, the campus is growing right now and the athletic programs are only going to follow."