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HITTINGER COLUMN: Huntsville admission to WCHA good for college hockey

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Many of us who grew up on a steady diet of Nickelodeon game shows in the late 1980s and early 1990s may remember one thing about the city of Huntsville, Ala. – Space Camp.

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That’s right. Huntsville is home to United States Space Camp, and contestants on the classic kids’ game show “Double Dare” would usually receive a trip to said camp as a grand prize for successfully completing whatever wacky and impractical contest highlighted the show that week.

That’s my earliest, foggy memory of the existence of Huntsville – I believe I forgot it existed until years later, when I started following college hockey and realized, yes, there is a team at Alabama-Huntsville

“THESE guys have a team?” I would think when casually glancing at a random Michigan or Wayne State hockey schedule (RIP Warriors).

If you’re a Bemidji State fan, though, your familiarity – and hatred – of Alabama’s “Rocket City” and their hockey likely runs a bit deeper.

For example, the first thing I heard from people around the office when I told them UAH was accepted into the Western Collegiate Hockey Association last week wasn’t a comment.

Rather, it was this chant, doubtlessly borrowed from Minnesota’s confusing rivalry with Iowa:

“Who hates Huntsville? WE HATE HUNTSVILLE!”

Unless Houston had some longstanding “Our Space Camp is better than yours!” feud going with Huntsville, Bemidji may be America’s only bastion of anti-Huntsville sentiment.

The feeling – I think – is mutual down South, but the reality is the two schools have much more in common than you’d think.

As BSU head coach Tom Serratore made sure to point out, it wasn’t too long ago that the Beavers were also nearly exiled to life as a hockey independent.

“I’m happy for Alabama,” Serratore said. “They’ve had to really struggle for the last couple of years. They’ve had a lot of unknowns.

“We’ve been in the same situation that they’ve been in. They’ve had a program that’s a strong one rich in tradition. I’m happy for them. There’s light at the end of the tunnel.”

College Hockey America disbanded following the 2009-10 season. The Beavers got into the WCHA. The Chargers were denied admission to the Central Collegiate Hockey Association.

Had Bemidji State not made the Frozen Four that year – or if the Sanford Center had not been built – BSU may also have been on the outside looking in.

And the history of independents in college hockey usually ends with the same death sentence. Just look at what happened to Wayne State.

Indeed, the inclusion of UAH in the WCHA means another program in an already small sport will survive. And that’s a win for everybody.

Really, the BSU/UAH rivalry is just a perk. But it’s still a great perk.

“We’ve been in a league with them,” Serratore said. “We’ve competed with them at the D-II level, we’ve been in the CHA with them, so you know we’re familiar with Huntsville and they’re familiar with us. We have a great history and a great rivalry with Huntsville, so it’s going to be nice to have that back.”

Granted, all this conference realignment has had some negative effects. For one thing, it’s put an end to some classic rivalries – perhaps you’ve heard the polite arguments over why Minnesota and North Dakota won’t be playing for the next few years?

That’s sad, but I wouldn’t weep too hard for folks in Minneapolis or Grand Forks. It might be rough not playing a main rival for a few years but it’s not like either team will just cease to exist.

For Huntsville, that was a real possibility – just like it was for BSU in the waning days of CHA.

Luckily for college hockey, both teams landed on their feet. The college hockey graveyard is full of teams – Findlay, Wayne State, Iona, etc. – that weren’t so lucky.

But the fact that the WCHA is going to allow one of the more underrated and under-appreciated rivalries in hockey to survive might be the best news Bemidji fans, Huntsville fans and college hockey fans everywhere could receive.

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