It’s Always Cold in Huntsville
Some would argue that Southern culture doesn’t adapt well to outside influences. Sometimes those people are right, but sometimes they're very wrong. And they clearly haven’t been to Huntsville, Ala. — the hockey capital of the South.
“Don’t tell me that man doesn’t belong out there. Man belongs wherever he wants to go — and he’ll do plenty well when he gets there.”
~ Wernher von Braun, Time magazine, Feb., 17, 1958 ~
When you’re in Huntsville, Ala., you’re standing in the middle of a big hole. The city is situated in the heart of the Tennessee Valley and on the edge of the Cumberland Plateau. The limestone walls of the Plateau and Valley jut skyward and seem to lock the city within them.
That’s fitting, because Huntsville seems a world apart from nearby places like Chattanooga to the north or Birmingham to the south.
The seat of Madison County, Huntsville sits on the Alabama-Tennessee line and stretches west into neighboring Limestone County. The metro area is home to more than 400,000 people, making it the second largest in Alabama. And lots of those people aren’t what many consider stereotypical Southerners. They’re engineers and scientists who moved to North Alabama to work in high technology at the Redstone Arsenal and NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.
The Arsenal and the Space Flight Center may be the economic termini of the city, but the cultural heart of Huntsville is the Von Braun Center. The VBC is a complex of meeting facilities and performing-arts spaces, but its main attraction is Probst Arena, which looks like a giant, white flying saucer that landed in the middle of downtown Huntsville.
That’s appropriate, because the center is named for Dr. Wernher von Braun, the man perhaps most responsible for sending Americans into space. He’s also the man most responsible for transforming Huntsville from a small mill town to a national center for aerospace engineering. At the outbreak of World War II, the U.S. military needed somewhere to make chemical munitions, so the government picked North Alabama, somewhere unlikely, to house the Redstone Arsenal. Once the war was over, the Arsenal brought rocket scientists and engineers to Huntsville. Then came the Space Flight Center, which in turn brought more transplants, all of whom brought slices of their cultures with them. Though the original German scientists are long gone, you can still find plenty of schnitzel restaurants scattered throughout the city.
Von Braun lived in Huntsville, which thanks to him is now known as the Rocket City, for 20 years. He left for Washington in 1970, and the city decided to name its new, modern civic center for the man who almost singlehandedly made Huntsville into a city that put people on the moon.
The Civic Center Advisory Board looked nationwide for someone to run the new complex. In 1971, they found Howard Radford, who had run the Roanoke Civic Center in Virginia and the IMA Sports Center in Flint, Mich.
And like the German scientists who transplanted to Huntsville before him, he brought his own culture with him.
Radford was a hockey man. He had a hand in creating the Silver Sticks Tournament in Michigan, a large youth hockey tournament that continues to this day. He must have been in the South just long enough to gain a Southerner’s trademark hard-headedness, because he decided he wanted an ice system in his new arena, even if that didn’t make much sense to anyone involved. But he got it. The Von Braun Center finally opened in 1975, complete with an ice rink.
Four years after the Von Braun Center opened, some folks decided they’d like to see a hockey team at the local college, the University of Alabama in Huntsville. So, they started started a team. Just like you might not expect to find the world’s best aerospace engineers in North Alabama, you probably don’t expect to find Division I hockey there, either. But it’s there. After 36 years of triumph and turmoil, the UAH Chargers are still the only Division I hockey team south of the Mason-Dixon.
And they’re living proof that hockey belongs in the South — at least in the uncommon city of Hunstville.
The Von Braun Center, home of the UAH Chargers
So how exactly did hockey get so popular in Huntsville?
Joe Ritch was there the day it all started, the first day Huntsville offered hockey to its youngsters in 1962. He was 11 years old and playing YMCA football, like all good young boys in Alabama, then and now.
“I had never seen a hockey game. I didn’t know what hockey was when you said the word,” Ritch says. “But the football coaches asked the players if they wanted to play hockey. So I showed up.”
The man who coached the kids that day was Fred Hudson, the father of Huntsville hockey. A Connecticut native, Hudson had come to Alabama to work with IBM on the space program. Huntsville already had a small ice rink, the Ice Palace, where the kids could practice. As one of the few men in town who had ever played the sport, Hudson was the obvious selection for coach.
The youth league became immensely popular, almost immediately. Eventually, the Huntsville Amateur Hockey Association was formed to oversee Huntsville’s growing interest in youth hockey.
Ritch grew up with the first generation of hockey players in Huntsville, and in the 52 years since he and that first group of boys laced up their skates and hit the ice, he has become one of the most respected people in North Alabama. Not only is he a prominent lawyer, but he has served on the University of Alabama System Board of Trustees and is the chairman of Tennessee Valley Authority’s Board of Directors.
But before all that, he was just a hockey fan and an alumnus of UAH. He was practicing law and coaching youth teams, but he had interest in bringing the sport he grew to love to his alma mater. So he convinced the manager of the VBC to put that ice Howard Radford had finagled to good use and host a club hockey game, just to see what it takes to play college hockey.
The teams were Vanderbilt and Tennessee. Ritch was surprised by the crowd the game garnered: roughly 2,000 people by his recollection. However, the bigger surprise was the poor quality of the teams: “I said, ‘We can beat either one of those teams. I can grab some players this afternoon and we could beat them.’”
The crowd and competition was enough to convince him to give the team a shot. Ritch convinced the school to support a club team and they joined the Southern Collegiate Hockey Association, with Ritch serving as head coach. Pretty soon, players were coming from all over the country to play at UAH.
In February 1980, just a few month after the team was formed, something happened that changed the hockey landscape throughout America. In Lake Placid, the underdog American hockey team upset the mighty Soviets on their way to an Olympic gold medal, and hockey fever swept America. And guess who was dropping the puck in Huntsville the weekend after the Miracle on Ice.
“We played the Saturday after the U.S. beat the Russians in 1980,” Ritch says. “After that, our crowds started to pick up dramatically, and quickly. They just had to change the chant from U-S-A to U-A-H.”
Even in those early years, Huntsville’s hockey pedigree showed. Ritch was right. The Chargers rolled their competition. The success convinced the school to hire a full-time head coach and move from club hockey to the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, an athletic association for colleges with smaller sports programs, then up to the NCAA’s Division II, then finally up to D-I, the big time.
Doug Ross was hired as head coach in 1982 after answering an ad in a hockey trade publication, and he brought with him an unexpected level of success. In his 25 years at the helm, Ross's teams won three club and two D-II national championships and shocked pretty much everyone who thought it was impossible to have a successful college hockey program in the South.
But it was possible thanks to Ritch and other Huntsville hockey pioneers. While the sport may have been somewhat popular at a youth level in the city if Ritch hadn’t started the UAH program, it undoubtedly wouldn’t be as big as it has become. The Chargers created a foothold for hockey in Huntsville.
Trouble started brewing in 2010, though, when the conference UAH played in, College Hockey America, disbanded (UAH won the final CHA conference tournament). The next two years, the program continued as an independent. The problem was the NCAA Tournament is formatted so that the six conference champions receive automatic bids. Without a conference, UAH couldn’t be a conference champion, so its chances of making the tourney were significantly diminished.
Malcolm Portera, then chancellor of the University of Alabama System, was serving as interim UAH president during the search for someone to take over the job full-time. In October 2011, citing the financial cost of keeping the team, Portera made the decision to demote UAH hockey to club status.
Hockey in Huntsville was in trouble.
Mike Corbett is having trouble paying attention.
He’s sitting in the plush seats of the VBC’s lower bowl, answering questions about his move two years ago from the assistant coaching job at the Air Force Academy in Colorado to become UAH’s head coach. This weekend’s foe, Northern Michigan, is on the ice, and that’s his primary concern. He answers all the questions confidently and completely, but his eyes continually dart toward the ice and back. Corbett’s team beat Northern Michigan 2-1 the night before, a slight upset, and the team is on a three-game home winning streak.
His eyes again dart toward the ice and back. He wants this sweep bad.
Game 1 was fast, violent and messy. The Chargers didn’t look as smooth on their feet as the opposing Wildcats, but they skated with more desire. Goals from Jack Prince and Frank Misuraca, paired with a stellar performance by goalie Carmine Guerriero, gave UAH the unlikely victory.
“When you’ve got a good goalie, you’ve got a chance every night,” Corbett says.
UAH Chargers star goalie, No.35, Carmine Guerriero
When Corbett came on as head coach, he was tasked with the biggest rebuilding job in the history of UAH hockey. In 2011, after 32 years of success, including three club national titles in the ’80s, D-II national titles in 1996 and 1998, and D-1 NCAA Tournament appearances in 2007 and 2010, the program was cancelled.
A couple of players who are still on the team now were freshmen that season, including Graeme Strukoff, from Chilliwack, British Columbia.
“We went through hell, to put it bluntly,” Strukoff said. “We learned a lot about how to deal with adversity, though.”
One thing the UAH administration may not have expected was the outcry of support the hockey program got from fans, alumni and students. Dr. Robert Altenkirch was hired as UAH’s new president in September of 2011, and the hockey community saw an opportunity to present their case to the new man in office.
A fundraising campaign was started, and the team raised enough money to keep the program alive.
“We rallied around the program and saved it. That provides a lot of momentum,” says Geof Morris, a UAH alum, engineer and proprietor of UAHHockey.com, a fan site focused on covering the Chargers. “And what saved it was donations. So now you get people who are financially invested in it.”
Though the program was alive, it faced significant setbacks. The Chargers struggled to recruit talent as an independent. The best players want a shot at championships, but UAH couldn’t provide that when it lost conference affiliation. The team also lost some players to transfer when the program’s disbandment was announced.
“That was such a struggle for us,” Morris says. “It really set us back two years.”
Scenes from the Chargers' recent sweep against the Northern Michigan Wildcats.
Corbett was hired ahead of the 2013-2014 season. The team played an abbreviated schedule in 2012-2013 as it searched for a conference, under Kurt Kleinendorst, who only coached the team for one season. It finally found one in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, a rag-tag bunch that has teams in Alaska, Michigan, Ohio and Minnesota, including UAH’s traditional rival, Bemidji State, only a 1,200-mile drive up the road away in Bemidji, Minn.
The first season under Corbett was tough. Still reeling from the events of a few years before, the program needed a complete overhaul. But the talent wasn’t there to make a significant difference at first.
“We didn’t have a lot of D-I talent on the team, but it was fun because the kids came out and worked hard every day,” Corbett says. “I couldn’t ask for more. As we all know, not everyone’s first in line when God gave out talent. But it was good. They gave me all I could ask for.”
Chargers head coach Mike Corbett has one of the toughest jobs in college hockey.
The Chargers went 2-35-1 in 2013-2014, one of the worst records in the history of D-I hockey.
“When you see 35 losses in a 38-game season, that’s demoralizing,” Morris says.
There’s reason for optimism now, though. After only two wins last season, the Chargers already have seven so far this seasons. Much of that comes thanks to recruiting. Back in a conference and with hopes of making the NCAA Tournament again, Corbett can sell the best players in the country on Huntsville. And without the constraint of no postseason possibilities, Huntsville has a lot of selling points.
“Facilities are king. They love playing in a big building like this,” Corbett says, arms spread wide, head spinning, looking through the vastness of the VBC. “When recruiting, you have to show a player what you can do to help him develop.”
After only a season back in a conference, the recruiting has already picked up, starting with this year’s crop of freshmen. Seven first-year players are logging significant ice time for the Chargers this season.
“We’ve got everything they need, from a strength coach, to a weight room, to ice whenever you want it, to a dynamite education. We have all the things that they need,” Corbett says. “And they can wear flip-flops to the rink.”
The team now has that injection of young talent, but the backbone of the squad is still the seniors, players like Strukoff, Jeff Vanderlugt, Doug Reid and Craig Pearce. They have been through all the highs and lows UAH has to offer and they, along with the team, have come out better for it.
“The guys who stuck around may not be the best hockey players in the world, but doggone it, they give a shit,” Morris says. “They know they aren’t high-level Division I athletes, but they work hard.”
And even if they were at UAH for the roughest period in the history of Huntsville hockey, they know the foundation they’ve solidified. They saved the program. All of UAH’s future success will reap what they sowed.
UAH Chargers pictured: No. 16 Doug Reid, No. 21 Jeff Vanderlugt, No. 19 Craig Pierce and No. 6, displaying the missing teeth that are the hockey player's badge of honor, Brandon Carlson.
“Coming to UAH, I wanted to be part of something that’s starting from the ground up again,” Vanderlugt says. “It’s nice to be part of something.”
The first night of the two-game series with Northern Michigan had a crowd that didn’t even fill up half of the VBC. Corbett thinks fans might not want to come because they still believe the program could be cancelled again at any time and he knows that it’s on him and his team to change their minds and get butts into the seats.
“The fan base was just as much a part of saving this as the alumni," he says. "They’re willing to come to the games. We’ve gotta get good, but they’re willing to come to the games.”
His eyes dart toward the ice one more time, but this time they rise, and focus on the two D-II national championship banners hanging in the corner of the VBC.
“We’re here to stay,” he says. “I think people are still a little leery about whether they want to follow, but we’re here to stay.”
Ice-covered pipes wrap around the Huntsville Museum of Art in Big Spring Park. A somewhat typical Saturday crowd is enjoying their morning on the grounds. Joggers trot along the edge of Big Spring. Couples clench loved ones’ hands on one side and hold cups of coffee on the other, a remedy for the early-morning chill.
Saturday mornings in Huntsville, like Saturday mornings all across America, are for recreational sports. And in an effort to prove itself as a true hockey town, Huntsville provided its kids with one thing all true hockey towns have: an outdoor rink.
A team of 6-year-olds takes the ice in a riot of sweater colors. Some wear blue. Some wear red. Some wear green. Some wear yellow. But they are all emblazoned with a big Chargers logo.
The kids have trouble staying on their feet. Like the Chargers game, it’s fast and messy, but significantly less violent. Seven rows of Christmas lights hang over the kids, who skip down the ice, chasing the puck into whatever corner it tucks into. They skate across the unnatural rink in the middle of the park. It’s cold this morning, but not cold enough to make water freeze without an ice machine.
Elizabeth Cinafaglione’s son is one of the kids skidding around haphazardly on the ice. Her family is originally from Canada and moved to Huntsville in 2003. She said she was pleasantly surprised by the popularity of her country’s national pastime in the area and the availability of an outdoor rink.
“I mean, this is the South, right?” she says.
April Lavenant has lived in Huntsville for only five months. Her youngest son is on the ice for the green, and he’s been one of the more impressive out there. He scored a goal and made a couple of saves when it was turn to play goalie. She says she’s been impressed by the organization and structure of youth hockey in Huntsville.
“It’s well supported,” Lavenant says. “There’s great talent here to teach the kids. And they’re very well structured.”
These kids are playing in the house league of the North Alabama Hockey Association, the successor to the original Huntsville Amateur Hockey Association. The president of NAHA is Ralph Drensek, an electrical engineer at Redstone Arsenal and UAH hockey alum. Originally from Sterling Heights, Mich., Drensek came to Huntsville to play hockey, but stayed due to the wealth of engineering jobs.
Scenes from the Bob O'Gorman Freedom Memorial youth tournament at Huntsville's Benton H. Wilcoxon Municipal Ice Complex.
UAH hockey alums are in every line of work you could think of in Huntsville. They are restaurateurs, entrepreneurs and engineers, but most of the 100 or UAH hockey alumni in the area stay involved in the hockey community in some capacity. Drensek says having non-parent coaches who know the game has helped dramatically improve the quality of youth hockey.
“Lots of these former players are non-parents, but they still give back and they’re engaged," he says. "You can’t overstate the value of a non-parent coach who is actually knowledgeable and qualified.”
NAHA supports 900 members in in its house leagues and travel programs playing on three rinks; two rinks at the Benton H. Wilcoxon Municipal Ice Complex, named for the man who owned the Ice Palace where Huntsville’s first youth league skated in 1962, and one in nearby Decatur. For older kids there is the AAA Thunder and the juniors team, the Point Mallard Ducks. Both of those programs are run by Nate Bowen, a UAH hockey alum.
UAH hockey's roots have grown deep in Huntsville. The team alumni from places such as Michigan and Minnesota bring knowledge from their home youth programs, some of the best in the country, and apply it in Huntsville. Drensek recalls talking to a military member who came to Huntsville from Buffalo, N.Y., and was blown away by the level of instruction his son was receiving.
“He told me, ‘I never imagined I’d have to come to Alabama to find the best coaching for my kid.’”
The relationship between Huntsville’s youth league and the UAH program is symbiotic. UAH provides more coaches to the area, and the youth league provides better players who are easier to recruit, considering they already live in Huntsville.
One of the players is Josh Kestner, a freshman forward for the Chargers. Kestner is part of Corbett’s first class of freshman brought in to revitalize the program. He started playing hockey when he was 3, and he grew up grew up going to UAH games at the VBC. He moved to Michigan to play juniors for a few seasons, but when the time came, he knew where he wanted to play his college hockey.
“I wanted to play in my hometown,” Kestner says. “When I was little, I was a rink rat, coming to all the [UAH] games, so it was an easy decision.”
Huntsville's own Josh Kestner
Although a player like Vanderlugt is from Ontario, he sees the work that the team is growing to build Huntsville's hockey culture.
“It’s neat to go out to these community events, and the kids see you then get all big-eyed,” Vanderlugt says. “And you can tell these kids admire us. They wanna be like us. We’re not just making our team better. We’re helping make this community’s hockey culture grow.”
When Kestner’s name is called in the starting lineup of Friday night’s game, it garners one of the loudest cheers of the night, befitting the hometown kid. He signs autographs after the game. Kids eagerly look over the table he’s signing autographs on and bounce on their tip-toes as he marks off his signature on their posters or shirts. He remembers being on the other side of that table, admiring the guys in the Chargers sweaters, wanting to be like them.
He signs his last autograph and makes his way through the empty VBC back to the locker room.
“Fans just wanna see some kids from the hometown.”
Time is waning in Saturday’s game against Northern Michigan, and the Chargers are leading 3-2. A couple of more minutes and the Chargers will have won four consecutive home games for the first time since 2006. The crowd is amped, on its feet. Every scramble in front of the UAH goal leaves fans breathless, but Guerreiro is home to clean it up. Once again, as hockey fans say of an outstanding game by a goalie, he stood on his head.
The Chargers is a fitting namesake for this team. Grace is not their strong suit. But they have power and a shit-ton of tenacity. The puck never makes it to the board unchallenged. They charge at their opponents, with no regard for safety and only one thought in mind: destroy or be destroyed.
They look a bit like those kids on the outdoor rink. Unsure on their feet, but plowing ahead with with gusto and verve. That’s the way UAH hockey has always been, says Morris.
“We’ve always been a meat and potatoes program. It was work hard, grind it out, beat people up on the wall, and find guys in space in front of the net and let them score.”
The cultural identity of any community on Earth is reflected through the games it plays. Huntsville’s relationship with hockey is no exception. In a town that’s found the most unlikely success by helping send man into space, it’s an unlikely sport that thrives. And they play the game of hockey their way.
“This is not a high-gloss town. This is a functional, modern town that’s focused on results,” Morris says. “It’s what you have to do in engineering. You have to be results-oriented. And that’s the way these guys attack the game. They’re very pragmatic.”
Huntsville is unlike any other city in the South, and its love for hockey fits right in with that. It’s in that big hole, within reach of the rest of the South, but just a step different. And for all those Northern boys who wouldn’t mind a little sunshine with their hockey, it's an experience unlike any they'd find back home.
“We’re a weird team, in a weird place, in a weird conference," Morris says, "but we enjoy the hell out of it and have a good time.”
In the final 30 seconds, the team employs a strategy of just getting the puck the hell off their end of the ice. They get called for icing multiple times, but keep holding on. The scrambles around the goal get scrappier and more intense, but the Chargers do not break. The final horn sounds and the sweep is theirs, and their hopes of making it to the NCAA Tournament are alive for the moment, and with a significant boost. Whatever Corbett is doing, it seems to be working. After another hard-fought weekend, hockey certainly still belongs in Huntsville.
When all is done with the Northern Michigan sweep, and the Zamboni chugs out for one last sweep of the ice before they get ready to do it all over again the next week, the Chargers scored five goals against the Wildcats. Two were scored by a Michigander, one by a Canadian, one by an Englishman, and one by a Slovak.
Yeah, that sounds like Huntsville.