The University of Alabama in Huntsville canceled its ice hockey program and men’s and women’s tennis programs today citing the “enormous challenges” of the COVID-19 pandemic. A notice went out to the university community Friday afternoon.
UAH also put other cost-saving measures in place, including a hiring freeze, “heightened review of spending, cancellations of faculty sabbaticals, and a temporary suspension of the 4033(b) voluntary employer match.”
UAH said it will honor the scholarships awarded to student-athletes in each program “for the duration of the students’ academic careers.” They are also released without penalty to transfer to other schools.
“These actions are the necessary result of intensive review and discussion about where we can make adjustments that protect our current financial condition with the least possible disruption to our central mission – education, research and service to the community,” UAH President Darren Dawson and Athletic Director Cade Smith said in a statement to the university community.
Ice hockey at UAH dates back to a club team in 1979, and won national titles in 1982, 1983 and 1984. The sport has long been popular in the city where many residents are transplants from areas where hockey is played. The city strongly supports its professional hockey team the Havoc. But there were signs the program was in trouble. Last July, the seven other teams in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association informed UAH of their intent to leave the leave the league after the 2020-21 season — basically leaving UAH without a place to play.
Huntsville attorney Joe Ritch, a former member of the University of Alabama Board of Trustees, started the club team and coached for three years, during which time it won two NCAA Divison 2 championships. “I hate to see it go,“ Ritch said today. “UAH players were “good students and reflected well on the community.“
UAH hockey has been canceled and brought back before. In 2011, then-interim President Malcolm Portera killed the program citing fiscal concerns and the team’s inability to align with a conference. Since then, the Chargers have endured nine straight losing seasons in NCAA’s Division I – compiling a 54-230-22 record over that span. That includes a 2-26-2 mark in the 2019-20 season.
The hockey program got a second life two months after the first cancellation when newly hired UAH President Robert Altenkirch overturned the decision made by Portera. A grass roots effort by Save UAH Hockey, promising to raise money to help support the program, swayed Altenkirch to give the sport another chance.
When it became a varsity program, UAH started in the NAIA, then bounced between NCAA Division I and Division II between 1986 and 1999, winning national championships in Division II in 1996 and 1998. After the NCAA folded Division II hockey, UAH moved up to Division I for good in 1999-2000 despite the rest of the athletic department competing in Division II.
UAH ranked 47th nationally in attendance out of 60 Division I schools with 1,419 fans per game during the 2019-20 season. That was just 21.5 percent of capacity at the Von Braun Center, the second-lowest capacity percentage in the country.
Last year, UAH announced plans to build an on-campus multi-use arena that would provide a home for the hockey team. The arena was part of a larger vision to expand the campus to the west across Sparkman Drive that would also include parks, retail and student housing.
The school bought 58 acres for $7.1 million with the blessing of the UA System Board of Trustees. The retiring Altenkirch made the announcement and said his successor, Dawson, embraced the plan.
“Darren’s reaction was, and I quote, ‘The concept looks fantastic, especially the multi-use facility,” Altenkirch said.