Coming off an electric Friday night experience at Bowling Green, I fully expected Saturday night to be somewhat bland in comparison. I mean, I’m going to a hockey game in Alabama, featuring the two teams that missed getting WCHA tournament bids last season.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. More on that in a bit.
The whole point of going to Bowling Green and Alabama-Huntsville early in the season was because of the distance between them. It’s not a short drive, and I didn’t want to wait until late in the season in the event that visiting both in one weekend couldn’t be properly done.
I arrived at my hotel mid-afternoon, exhausted from a short night’s sleep but excited for the evening ahead. Front desk clerk asked what brought me to town.
“Hockey game,” I said.
“Oh…the… what’s the team name?…,” she trailed off.
Clearly the game still has some room to grow in the Hockey Capital Of The South™.
I left for the Von Braun Center with my phone’s GPS set to take me there. The phone directed me down a dark road, and I made out the sign:
REDSTONE ARSENAL – CHECKPOINT AHEAD.
I’m at a military installation. This is not a hockey arena.
A very abrupt u-turn followed along with an expletive, and an attempt to get the GPS on-track. I arrive just as the “LOT FULL” light went on at the parking lot, and was told by a parking attendant to take the “space” by the curb. By “space” she meant “park in the fire lane.” But nobody told me to move as I walked toward the arena, so I figured I was in the clear.
Just as was the case at Verizon Center in Mankato, Von Braun Center in Huntsville is a huge venue, capable of hosting multiple events at once. This time it wasn’t a hair metal tribute band. It was a touring company’s production of Les Miserables. The juxtaposition of hockey and live theater was not lost on me, nor any of the personnel there. With one look they could tell who was here for theater – usually in shirt & tie – or hockey, as exhibited by the t-shirts and hoodies.
After finding my way to the ice arena, I took my general admission seat in the upper deck just in time for the opening face off.
Hockey in the south is a unique concept, as UAH is the oldest active college hockey program in the south, and one of just two in the sun belt. As such, the crowd seemed to be about a 50/50 mix of established hockey fans and curious observers. Couple that with southern hospitality and I witnessed a real eagerness to help the newbies learn the game.
The scoring opened at 7:15 of the first period with an Alabama-Huntsville goal. Fans cheered and clapped as the goal horn sounded, though most remained in their seats. It wasn’t a lack of interest that kept most of them sitting; it seemed to be a more subdued politeness.
At the end of the period I got a good opportunity to explore the concourse of Von Braun Center. It’s a nice facility, only slightly betraying its age. The array of merchandise on hand was pretty impressive, with vendors from the university bookstore, the UAH athletic department, and others carrying everything from hockey trading cards to UAH shirts, sweatpants, and pucks. The concourses are wide enough to accommodate the fans without feeling empty, and the facility seems to fit the needs of the program fairly well.
Student attendance seems to lag somewhat, presumably a result of the three-plus mile distance between the campus and the arena. Drawing students to games off-campus is always difficult, regardless of sport or how well the team plays. The UAH pep band and cheerleaders do a good job contributing to the arena’s atmosphere without much of a student body on hand.
Like Slater Family Ice Arena the night before, I found UAH’s banners not suspended from the ceiling, but along the top of the wall. Bowling Green’s appeared to be on the walls as a matter of necessity because of the low ceiling; I’d suspect the Alabama-Huntsville banners are along the outside because of the Chargers sharing the facility with the Huntsville Havoc of the Southern Professional Hockey League.
Alaska-Anchorage took advantage of a trio of power plays in the second to open up a 3-1 lead, which managed to take the fans out of the game heading into the 3rd period. Few people had left their seats, but there was a disconnect growing between the fans and the action. UAH cashed in on a power play early in the 3rd, and kept up the physical play for much of the period. The Alabama-Huntsville squad pulled the goalie in the final moments of the 3rd and opened up a full-on assault on UAA goalie Olivier Mantha. The Chargers kept up the pressure and put up a game-tying goal right as the final horn sounded. The arena absolutely erupted, both as the puck met the net and after a video review confirmed the goal with 0.9 seconds in regulation.
I cried. I’ll admit it. If you’d been there you would have, too. It was that beautiful. Moments like those are the things that made us hockey fans in the first place, and hopefully made an impact on the newbies at the game.
Two periods of overtime left the score tied at 3-3, and Alaska-Anchorage took home the extra WCHA point in the first round of the shootout. The fans left, buzzing with excitement over what they’d seen. On the way out I had a chance to speak with a number of people who hadn’t been to a game before that night. The common thread? They all couldn’t wait to return.
What I witnessed that Saturday night in Huntsville came perilously close to not happening. Six years ago the cancellation of the Chargers hockey program was announced, and it was only through the work of the school’s president, administrators, and donors that the decision was reversed. I – and everyone who has ever made a memory involving UAH Chargers hockey – owe those people an unpayable debt of gratitude.
My experience at Alabama-Huntsville was far more fulfilling than I’d expected, thanks in no small part to an unforgettable game with UAA. It’s games like this that underscore how WCHA hockey is one of the best-kept secrets in sports.
Four down, six to go.