Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Disgrace

Dr. Malcolm "Mack" Portera doesn't know jack about college hockey.

Unfortunately, that's the ultimate reason why February will see the University of Alabama at Huntsville fade from the college hockey map - and why Portera, the University of Alabama chancellor who has assumed the temporary role of UAH president, has joined former Union president Roger Hull at the top of the list of the sport's biggest administrative fools.

Monday was a very sad day in the history of college hockey. It marked an avoidable sunset for a program that simultaneously embodied the spirit of a sport in which Division II and III schools regularly tangle - and often win - against schools whose mascots are household names, and the spirit of the sport's unique and passionate niche support.

While it is true that the college hockey family as a whole is partially to blame for leaving a cherished family member out in the cold - ironically, in the sport's warmest locale - it is beyond belief that the ultimate blame would fall with an individual within the school itself, even as the Chargers' most passionate fans did everything in their power to make the team's survival a feasible option.

There are things that could have happened to keep this day from happening. The CCHA could have chosen to bring the Chargers on board two years ago when they applied. Poetic justice, perhaps, that the league will be the next entity on its way out come 2013. If they'd been accepted, UAH would have likely begun league play this season at the latest, and could well have had a better position to collectively bargain with the other CCHA teams who, like the Chargers, were suddenly scrambling for a new home.

The WCHA, it is told, could have been a likely home following all of the moving pieces this summer even despite the league's inclusion of both Alaska schools. But then, Mack Portera came into the picture and started waving his axe, which understandably made the WCHA wary - creating Portera's self-fulfilling prophecy that the team wasn't going to find a home.

Portera's excuses are easily shot down - and he has so obviously ignored any attempts to help keep the program afloat until better arrangements can be found.

First, he takes the easy road in this difficult economy: he claims poverty, something the average citizen is supposed to be able to understand right now. Unfortunately for him, it doesn't hold much water considering that a grassroots alumni and local effort raised enough pledges to offset the school's losses for three years.

A lot can happen in three years. Heck, just two years ago, UAH was in the NCAA tournament, playing a tight game with Miami that helped goaltender Cameron Talbot earn an NHL contract. Given three years, we could see an economic turnaround that would help the school continue to support its program, and the Chargers could eventually find accommodations in a conference with an opening, of which there are now three and potentially four. If things are still bad then, perhaps the program would still have to close. But now, we'll never know.

Second, he makes the claim that Charger hockey will continue to be a defining element of the school, since it will continue to operate at the club level. Right. That's why Penn State is still playing club hockey come next season, or why Lindenwood is still playing women's club hockey. Oh, wait.

Ask any hockey fan in Glens Falls what it was like going from watching AHL hockey for 20 years with the Adirondack Red Wings to watching low-level UHL hockey with the Adirondack Icehawks/Frostbite. Needless to say, attendance, and interest, wasn't quite the same. People aren't stupid. They know the difference in quality.

Third, Portera says the hockey program's budget is much bigger than that of the rest of the athletic department. That's true at RPI, too. Some program has to be the biggest. Why wouldn't it be the most important sport at the school? Hockey allows UAH to stand out from its big brother in Tuscaloosa AND its arguable little brother at UAB, both of which play big time FBS football. As UA system chancellor, Portera probably could have saved the system more money by making minor cuts there, but of course, he couldn't.

Fourth, he points out closures at Wayne State and Findlay, which is like comparing apples to oranges when it comes to the history and tradition of hockey at those schools. They combined for a total of 17 varsity seasons and no championships. This is UAH's 27th season, and the team has won two national championships at the now defunct Division II level. Wayne State and Findlay, with very little history, went away with minimal fuss. Portera had his email inbox deluged with hundreds upon hundreds of emails from students, alumni, and fans from around the college hockey world.

UAH will be the first program with a national championship to relinquish varsity status.

Fifth, and most outrageous of all, Mack Portera tries to use the excuse that the team's lack of Alabamans on the roster is a reason to scuttle the team's varsity status - a clear grasp at straws. Someone had better alert RIT - not a single New Yorker on that team. No one from Rhode Island plays for Brown. No Nebraskans at Nebraska-Omaha. Army, Colorado College, North Dakota, Notre Dame, Princeton, Quinnipiac, Vermont and Yale have a paltry one player each from their respective home states.

It's this last claim that pushes Portera into Hull status. Don't most schools proudly point out how many different states are represented in their student body? Aren't most schools proud of their international contingent? UAH is a darn fine engineering school - fine enough that the aristocratic qualifier "for a state school" can be easily skipped - shouldn't it also be a source of pride that people from outside the state are attracted by athletics as well as academics?

Club hockey certainly isn't going to grow the sport in North Alabama either, as he tries to claim.

As Adam Wodon said so eloquently on the twitters on Monday, Hull and Portera stand alone.

Roger Hull, you will remember, earned himself undying infamy when he directed that Union become the only institution sharing a Division III conference with a D-III school offering scholarships in their D-I sport (in this case, three of them) to vote against allowing those schools to continue offering those scholarships. He then continued to carry on, unconsciously explaining his school's decades of dismal records by saying "...when they got to 40 percent [winning percentage], I was proud, and when they reached nearly 50 percent a few years ago, I was tremendously proud of them."

Can there be any wonder why the Dutchmen have been so successful since his departure? Incidentally, Hull is now running for Schenectady mayor - and perhaps the city's residents should make themselves aware of his benchmarks for success.

Fortunately for Union, they were able to at least survive Hull's idiocy. Huntsville doesn't have that kind of luxury with the fool they ended up with - on an interim basis, no less - and college hockey is a poorer place today because of it.

Late in their program's history, after the axe had fallen, Boston University football started wearing tape over their BU logos and plain white jerseys, calling themselves "University X." Findlay started calling themselves merely "the Oilers." For all the support the Chargers have received from their school, perhaps something similar is in order.

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