Several Penn State players have dubbed the upcoming weekend series against Alabama-Huntsville the “Independent League Megabowl” on Twitter.
While southern accents and hockey are things not normally associated with one another, UAH is an outlier.
In fact, former Alabama governor George Wallace declared Hunstville, Ala. the “Hockey Captiol of the South” in 1987.
Athletic director Dr. E.J. Brophy said that some of the players “like the idea of wearing flip flops in March” or not having to shovel snow to get to the rink.
Like the Nittany Lions (10-13-0), the Chargers (3-17-1) are an independent team without a conference for this season, but that will all change next year with both teams joining a conference.
Penn State adding a Division I hockey program made the possibility of a Big Ten hockey conference a reality when five other Big Ten schools elected to form the conference.
The similarities don’t end there. Being an independent proved to have many disadvantages. Not only does it make it more difficult into get the NCAA tournament, it makes scheduling tougher.
Penn State was forced to host three weekends against ACHA club teams as well as four contests against NCAA Division III opponents to fill out its schedule.
Alabama-Huntsville has dealt with scheduling problems during that time. At one point during the season, the Chargers traveled for six consecutive weeks without a home game.
Brophy compared scheduling as an independent to “like pulling your hair out every five minutes.”
The Chargers’ struggles on the road this season have been evident, as they are 1-13-0 on the road. At home, the Chargers have a 2-2-1 record in NCAA games.
With a future Big Ten hockey conference cemented, it meant that the WCHA (Minnesota and Wisconsin), and CCHA (Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State) would have vacancies. Meanwhile, Alabama-Huntsville had trouble finding a direction to take the hockey program.
Brophy said the hockey program was “extremely important” to the school, but even with some alumni that went on to play in the NHL, at one point the future of hockey at the school of about 8,000 students, looked grim.
While the CCHA decided to dissolve at the end of the season, the WCHA wanted to stay despite losing eight of its 12 schools (two to the Big Ten and six to the new NCHC). By September 2013, the WCHA had invited five new schools to its conference but needed a sixth to make an even total of 10 schools.
Having successfully hosted the 2012 Frozen Four in Tampa, Fla., the athletic department tried to find a solution. After placing many phone calls and sending many emails, the future of the program took a major step forward when the WCHA announced that UAH would be joining the conference on Jan. 17.
“We go from having zero guaranteed home games to 14,” Brophy said of the benefits of joining the WCHA. “It brings brand, excitement, stability…we’re excited about it. We think it’s going to be a good thing for us.”
At the press conference announcing the Chargers’ acceptance of the WCHA’s invitation, first-year head coach Kurt Kleinendorst said that recruiting will be a lot different and easier once the program enters the prominent college hockey conference.
Even with this weekend’s meetings being the only time the two teams, Brophy said he hopes that UAH could start a rivalry with Penn State.
Nittany Lions coach Guy Gadowsky smiled at the thought of rivalry with the Chargers. Gadowsky joked when he said Penn State would gladly take credit for helping UAH get into the WCHA.
Both games are scheduled to start at 7:30 p.m.