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Old friends reunited: Bemidji State rival Alabama-Huntsville invited to WCHA

Bemidji State goalie Andrew Walsh tracks the puck as Drew Fisher defends Alabama-Huntsville’s Tyler Kotlarz during a 2011 game at the the Sanford Center. The WCHA announced Thursday that UAH had been accepted into the league and could begin play as early as the 2013-14 season. Pioneer File Photo

DALLAS – The rest of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association might not be ready for hockey Southern-style. But for Bemidji State, traveling south of the Mason-Dixon Line will be just like old times.

The WCHA voted Thursday to invite frequent BSU rival Alabama-Huntsville as its 10th member, ending the Chargers’ quest for conference affiliation following the demise of College Hockey America in 2010.

A WCHA press release said the Chargers’ “membership will be effective as soon as 2013-14.”

The Beavers and the Chargers share a long history. The schools have met 70 times and the two were charter members of CHA in 1999.

But when BSU joined the WCHA in 2010-11, UAH was left out in the cold. The school applied to the Central Collegiate Hockey Association in 2009 but was denied admission.

“All athletic programs experience special defining moments, and our hockey program’s acceptance today into the Western Collegiate Hockey Association is certainly one of those moments,” Alabama-Huntsville athletic director E.J. Brophy said in a statement. “The WCHA is a preeminent hockey conference in America, and I know that our student-athletes, coaches, fans, friends, alums and the people of Huntsville are ecstatic and proud of this giant step for our ice hockey program.”

It’s an important step for the school after nearly losing the program just 16 months ago.

BSU athletic director Rick Goeb said in a phone interview Thursday that UAH was committed to hockey. Goeb was attending an NCAA convention in Dallas, where WCHA were holding meetings in conjunction with NCAA activities.

“They went through a rough period there, trying to keep that program alive,” Goeb said. “Now they survived and they’re a good addition to our league.”

UAH officials made their final pitch for conference admission at this week’s meetings. Goeb said their presentation helped WCHA officials answer a lot of questions they might have had about UAH.

“It was an opportunity for Huntsville’s president, administration and athletic directors to share some information about their city, their university and their program,” Goeb said. “I think there were lots of questions that people had about what they would bring to the league and things they could improve in their own program, but they answered them.”

UAH needed approval from seven members for admission, and they got in unanimously, according to a report from Todd Milewski of

They’ll join Alaska-Fairbanks, Bowling Green, Northern Michigan, Ferris State and Lake Superior State as new members of the retooled league.

Some league officials were concerned about the costs of travel to and from Huntsville. Goeb said UAH has agreed to pay for a travel subsidy, but said that number hadn’t been finalized yet.

Homeless no more

The Chargers had been without a conference since CHA folded following the 2009-10 season.

The university decided to fold the program in October 2011 before a grassroots effort saved the team for a time.

But it was clear the Chargers needed a conference to survive long-term. The Chargers had just one home series against a Division-I schools this season and will spent a majority (20 games) of their 32-game schedule on the road.

That may be a reason why the Chargers are currently 3-17-1 so far this season.

But as BSU fans know, futility wasn’t always a fact of life at UAH.

The two schools share a long history that includes multiple meetings in the Division II national title game in the mid-90s.

Former BSU head coach Bob Peters, who coached the Beavers from 1967-2001, is glad UAH is back as a BSU nemesis – especially since many of BSU’s old rivals have folded.

“It bodes well for the growth of the game,” Peters said. “You never like to lose teams. That doesn’t bode well for collegiate hockey.

The Beavers and the Chargers met for the D-II title four times from 1994-1998. The Chargers won the title in 1996 and 1998.

“I think it’s a fair statement to say there was a period of time in the 90s when one of the best rivals in the country was Alabama versus Bemidji,” Peters said. “They have a really fine facility down there, and they have proven that they can draw fans when they’re competitive.”

In 1994, the Chargers made their first-ever NCAA title appearance and hosted Bemidji State in Huntsville.

The Beavers won the best-of-three series but a record crowd of 6,451 saw the game.

“They packed 6,000 people into that place,” Peters said. “When they’re good, they have great support.”

Goeb said he’s glad the UAH program will be allowed to continue.

“They’re former CHA members, and they have a long time of playing against us in Bemidji, so it’s a nice rivalry to have back,” Goeb said. “But it’s also nice that college hockey doesn’t lose another program. That’s happened often in the past few years so it’s good that they’re not going to fold.”

Jack Hittinger

Jack Hittinger is the sports editor of the Bemidji Pioneer. He is also the Bemidji State beat writer. He hails from the Great State of Michigan. Read his Bemidji State blog at and follow him on Twitter at @Jackhitts.

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