And then there were two.
The University of Alabama Huntsville killed its college hockey program Friday, leaving the two Alaska schools as the only teams that will be left behind when seven others leave the Western Collegiate Hockey Association after the 2020-21 season.
Huntsville eliminated three athletic teams — ice hockey, men’s tennis and women’s tennis — in one of several moves to address financial difficulties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The school has also imposed a hiring freeze and eliminated sabbaticals in an effort to reduce expenses, it said in a statement released Friday.
Huntsville joined the 10-team WCHA in 2013. It was the only college hockey team in the Deep South.
“Very unfortunate and sad to see a program fold,” UAA coach Matt Curley said by text. “Not sure what that would mean for the future of the conference in (2021-22) as it is too early to tell given recent news. Will have to see how things shake out.”
The UAA and UAF hockey teams have been on shaky ground in recent years as the University of Alaska slashes its budget. They were considered for elimination in 2016, and last year the prospect of devastatingly deep cuts in state funding prompted UAA to move hockey games out of Sullivan Arena and play them at the school’s small on-campus facility.
Last year also brought the news that seven WCHA teams intended to leave the conference and start a new one. They gave the WCHA a two-year notice, and the 2020-21 season will be the last season for a 10-team WCHA season.
Left behind were UAA, UAF and Huntsville, who according to administrators at both Alaska schools were working together to figure out a plan for 2021-22 and beyond. Now, the two Alaska teams will go it alone.
There were 61 NCAA Division I men’s ice hockey teams last season, and all but one was a member of a conference. The lone independent team was Arizona State.
There will 61 teams next season too, because Long Island University will make its debut as a Division I independent, although there are two East Coast hockey leagues, and Long Island could presumably and eventually seek membership in one of those.
UAA and UAF appear to be headed to independent status after the 2020-21 season. Playing as an independent is challenging because scheduling games and gaining entry in the NCAA playoffs is more difficult without the benefit of conference membership.
“We are deeply saddened by today’s news that Alabama Huntsville has eliminated its men’s ice hockey program. UAH has been a valued member of the WCHA since joining the league in 2013 and, as the first Division I hockey school in the Deep South, brought the sport to a previously untapped fan base for college hockey," WCHA commissioner Bill Robertson said in a released statement.
Alabama Huntsville said it will honor scholarships extended to hockey and tennis players. No Alaskans played for the Chargers last season, but former UAF coach Lance West was an assistant coach for the team.
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