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by Staff Writer / Tampa Bay Lightning


tbl.commentator - Melanie Formentin

If you're looking for an ice hockey team with a southern twist, you just might want to take a closer look at the University of Alabama-Huntsville Chargers (UAH) this weekend.

As the hosts of the 2012 Frozen Four at the St. Pete Times Forum, the Chargers make their way to Florida to help introduce NCAA Division I competition to Tampa Bay area hockey fans in the inaugural Lightning College Hockey Classic.

For UAH, the opportunity to showcase their school, program and hockey initiatives is one that is relished.

Although the Chargers are relatively new to NCAA Division I hockey, they have a storied past that ranks them amongst the best teams in Division II history. Prior to their jump to the College Hockey America (CHA) Conference, their second move to Division I hockey in team history, UAH was a force at the D-II level, winning two championships (1996, 1998) and going undefeated during the 1995-96 season when they were 26-0-3.

In addition to the success the Chargers experienced, the groundwork to put Alabama-Huntsville on the road to the top level of college hockey in the nation was set when Jim Harris joined the university as the Director of Athletics in 1995. By 2000 the Chargers were awarded Division I status and they have been competing against top teams ever since.

Being the southernmost team in NCAA Division I hockey, makes participating in a tournament such as the College Hockey Classic that much more rewarding.

"We have a very strong history in Division II, winning two national championships," explained Harris. "When Division II discontinued that championship, we elevated our program to Division I and feel that we can be competitive even though we are in the south. We're hoping to send the statement that we can compete, we do recruit well and we certainly have a very strong and very loyal fan base to that effect. We continue to want to expand that."

At the helm of the expansion of their successful hockey program is Head Coach Doug Ross.

Ross, in his 25th season behind the bench for the Chargers, is only the second head hockey coach in the university's history. Having joined the team in 1982-83, Ross has gone on to coach UAH to a 441-248-40 record, placing him amongst the Top-15 most successful coaches in NCAA hockey history.

A native of Michigan, Ross has seen the Chargers hockey program blossom from just its third year of existence. It's not hard to see why Ross is excited about the prospect of participating in the College Hockey Classic against top teams such as Notre Dame, Air Force and Army.

"There's been a lot of exposure with pro hockey, minor league hockey and youth hockey, and now we've got NCAA hockey," said Ross of bringing attention to college hockey in the South. "I'd like to see someone step up to the plate and field a Division I team. I think it'd be really successful, especially in the Southeast Conference. The big teams in the NCAA would come to the south to play and to help grow hockey.

"Now we're bringing Notre Dame down here, we've got West Point and Air Force, and that's just a start."

The start is one Harris already put in motion with his involvement in the Frozen Four coming to Tampa. With an eye on creating interest among young hockey fans, Harris echoes Ross' sentiments when discussing the possibility of Florida club teams eventually joining the ranks of Division I hockey.

Part of successfully building college hockey programs in the south means competing against already solidified programs from the northern states, and traveling to Tampa for the College Hockey Classic easily presents UAH with that opportunity.

"Certainly the exposure that Alabama-Huntsville is a Division I hockey team," said Harris when asked about his hopes for the tournament, and what he would most like to see accomplished from his team's participation. "We would like to compete with the national names like Notre Dame, Michigan, Michigan State and so on, and continue in that type of mode whether it be in a tournament setting or for individual weekend games."

Getting exposure and competing against top-ranked teams means a grueling travel itinerary that usually takes the Chargers all over the country. Even though the labor is certainly one of love, it's still a nice change of pace for Alabama-Huntsville's northern rivals to make the trip down south for once.

"We've never played hockey in Tampa before, but we've played all over North America," said Ross. "Being from the South, we're excited about representing the South, UAH and bringing our team to Tampa Bay and getting that exposure. I really hope, as a coach, that not only UAH but the other teams that are coming to Tampa will help promote the growth of hockey, especially NCAA hockey. We've kind of been ambassadors for our university throughout the country because we've taken our team all over.

"It's been a lot of hard work, but we've been successful and we just hope that we can grow hockey and expose people and let them see NCAA hockey."

It's that kind of southern hospitality that's helped UAH to promote their team and the sport they love in a region that often doesn't get the chance to enjoy the excitement of college hockey.

Even so, once the games start the Chargers will be ready to play their hardest and take on their northern rivals during the two-day tournament. That's what you call hockey with a southern twist.
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