Brentwood brothers fight for college hockey program

Monday, September 19, 2011 at 9:05pm

Hockey players rarely get scared.

They can’t. In a sport so physical, there is no room for the timid. 

Brice and Sebastian Geoffrion know this better than most. The brothers from Brentwood took to the ice for the first time when they were 3 years old. Hockey isn’t a hobby for them — it is a lifestyle. 

Their great-grandfather, Howie Morenz, made his NHL debut with the Montreal Canadiens in 1923. Morenz’s son-in-law, Bernie Geoffrion, enjoyed an 18-year career. His son Dan — Brice and Sebastian’s father — spent three years in the NHL (1979-82). Just last year, when Blake Geoffrion — Brice and Sebastian’s older brother — made his debut with the Nashville Predators, he became the NHL’s first fourth-generation player.

Naturally, Brice and Sebastian, college teammates at the University of Alabama-Huntsville, have followed suit in their dedication to the sport.

“It is basically our lives,” Sebastian, a junior, said. “We only take a month and a half off in the summer. We are always training, every single day. Whenever we say hockey is our life, we are not kidding.”

Suddenly their lifestyle is being threatened — and that unnerves them.

The UAH program — the only NCAA Division I hockey team in the South — is in danger of losing its status as a varsity sport. 

“It could end at a snap of a finger — just like that,” Brice, a sophomore, said. “That is what’s scary and sad. All the sacrifices and everything we put into this game could end just like that.”

The Chargers will have a 2011-12 season, which begins Oct. 1. But beyond that, the future isn’t as certain.

Recently, Malcolm Portera, the chancellor of the University of Alabama system and currently UAH’s interim president, said in a statement that the athletic department was being evaluated “to ensure that dollars are wisely spent on our 14 competitive sports programs. Money available to operate an athletic program is scarce, so it’s crucial that we manage those dollars prudently.”

In July, former UAH and NHL player Jared Ross sent out an email first alerting UAH supporters and former teammates that “the existence of the program is greatly threatened.” From there, word got out via alumni that $500,000 a year over the next three years was needed to keep the Division I program alive. A website — saveuahhockey.com — was created to spark interest and raise money.

“You would think they [lacked] jobs,” Brice said of the supporters. “They have spent so much time saving this program.”

At a press conference held by Huntsville community leaders nearly two weeks ago, former UAH hockey player Nathan Bowen said over $525,000 in pledges for the next three years has been raised.

“This is merely a bunch of amateurs sending out emails, rounding up teammates and friends and asking them to give,” Bowen said. “… So the community has stepped up. The alumni have stepped up and once they have been asked to get involved and contribute, they have.”

The hockey team — the school’s only Division I sport — is also in search of a conference after College Hockey America dissolved at the end of the 2009-10 season. The Chargers were then denied membership to the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, which currently includes numerous teams from Michigan and Ohio, along with Notre Dame and Alaska.

“The CCHA is a conference that would make the most sense because of the shortest distance,” new UAH athletics director E.J. Brophy said. “Some people say [UAH was denied in 2009 because of] geography. Some people say it was the lack of flexibility of the times that we could play matches at the Von Braun Center here in Huntsville. Some people say there wasn’t enough room in the inn. It depends on who you ask.”

So for the second straight season, UAH will be Division I’s lone independent. But Brophy said he has talked with many conference commissioners, athletic directors and coaches about conference alignment. The college hockey landscape — like that of college football — is in the middle of a seismic shift. 

In the next couple years, numerous schools will be switching leagues. Three CCHA schools are leaving for the Big Ten Conference. But all eyes seem to be on Notre Dame, which hasn’t announced if it will stay in the CCHA or join the Big Ten, Hockey East or the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. 

The Fighting Irish’s decision could affect everyone else, including UAH. 

“It seems to me that everybody is waiting on Notre Dame,” Brophy said. “That has kind of slowed down the process.”

Since the late 1970s, hockey has been a staple at UAH, and Brophy insists that won’t change. The status might, though. The Chargers could drop back to the club level, where the program started more than 30 years ago. That doesn’t sit well with many UAH fans or the Geoffrion brothers. 

“Nothing against club hockey, but there is definitely a huge difference,” Sebastian said.

The brothers said they would transfer to continue their Division I hockey careers elsewhere if UAH disbanded its varsity program. 

They just hope it doesn’t reach that point. 

Without the UAH program the last three decades, interest in hockey in a Southern town might have melted a long time ago. Many youth programs feed off the college program. 

The Geoffrion brothers fear not having an NCAA hockey program for the first time in 27 years would deter the growth and development of future hockey players in Huntsville.

“It would be devastating for them too,” Sebastian said. “We have all those kids that come to our games, and they look up to us. It wouldn’t just hurt us. Huntsville [youth] hockey is mostly built around Charger hockey here. It would be a big disappointment for everybody.”