Ayodele Adeniye and Peyton Francis thought the emotional rollercoaster regarding the University of Alabama in Huntsville's hockey team was over after supporters, led by Flames goalie Cam Talbot, raised nearly $790,000 to save the program.
University president Darren Dawson and athletic director Cade Smith had announced on May 22 that the school was ending hockey, men's tennis and women's tennis because of budget problems related to the coronavirus pandemic. However, officials said they would reconsider their decision if supporters of the team could raise a total of $750,000.
"It was nerve-racking, but it's good to have security now," said Adeniye, an incoming freshman defenseman who's a graduate of the NHL's "Hockey Is For Everyone" program. "Figuring you have a scholarship and you're going to come out of school without being in debt then hearing your program has folded and you don't have anywhere to go to college, it scares you a little bit."
That quote was on Tuesday. The next day, Adeniye and Francis learned that UAH coach Mike Corbett, the man who recruited them, had resigned along with assistant Gavin Morgan.
"It's kind of crazy, just a whole whirlwind of emotions," said Francis, a forward who recently completed his freshman season. "I don't think there are any surprises left."
Despite the period of uncertainty - which caused five players to transfer, including leading scorer Josh Latta -- Adeniye and Francis said they're still committed to UAH and hope to be key players in the rebirth of a program that went 2-26-6 last season and was winless on the road.
For Francis, it's a matter of tending to unfinished business following a disappointing season. For Adeniye, it's a chance to fulfill his dream of playing NCAA Division I hockey and eventually in the NHL.
"I know they lost their best defenseman and another defenseman last year, so I know I'll be able to come in and maybe play a couple more games," Adeniye said. "It's always good to know that you're going to go somewhere where you're needed."
Adeniye began playing hockey when he was six years old through the Columbus Ice Hockey Club, which is part of the "Hockey Is For Everyone" initiative.
Willie O'Ree, the NHL's diversity ambassador who became the League's first black player when he debuted with the Boston Bruins on January 18, 1958, regularly visited the Columbus program and followed Adeniye's progress over the years.
Ayodele Adeniye with Willie O'Ree
The two share a special bond. O'Ree is blind in his right eye, the result of a hockey injury, while Adeniye suffered from misaligned eyes, a condition that required several surgeries to correct, his mother, Lisa Ramos, said.
"It's not only the story of him being the first black hockey player, but everything he went through, the issue with his eye," Ramos said. "The other thing that Willie does, and it meant so much to Ayo, is he always takes time to talk to him."
Adeniye's involvement in the Columbus Ice Hockey Club led him to attend Minnesota Hockey Camps, which was founded by Chuck Grillo, the former executive vice president and director of player development for the San Jose Sharks, and Herb Brooks, who coached the United States men's hockey team to the gold medal at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics.
Dean Grillo, who is the director of hockey operations for the camp, was impressed by Adeniye and told Corbett, his friend, about him.
"He said 'I've got this kid who is 6-foot-5 and he can do 32-inch one-legged jumps. He is the best athlete I've seen come through here in 20 years and he's getting better hockey-wise,'" Corbett said. "He's got 'I need an opportunity' written all over him. He's probably going to be that guy who you won't see his full potential until his junior year in college."
Adeniye said he appreciates that Corbett offered him a scholarship and sent him a message after he resigned to thank him.
"Thank you from the bottom of my heart for giving me a chance," he said in the text. "Even if you never coached me, you will be a big part of anything I do for giving me the opportunity to chase my dream.'"
Ayodele Adeniye with Willie O'Ree
After Adeniye committed to UAH in 2018, he headed north to play for Carleton Place of the Central Canada Hockey League, where Francis became his teammate and billet roommate.
Adeniye scored 36 points (11 goals, 25 assists) in 107 CCHL games, and Francis thinks the big defenseman will only get better in Huntsville.
"He's a great guy and brings a lot on the defensive line with just his size and athletic ability alone," Francis said. "To be the size that he is and be able to skate the way that he can is incredible. I think he's just got to keep putting the work in and he can be a great player at a very high level."
Francis, meanwhile, hopes to raise his own level after a frustrating freshman season that saw him get only two assists in 29 games.
Lance West, who was named the Chargers acting coach the day Corbett resigned, reached out to Francis and told him that he's being counted on to be a contributor next season.
"He said, 'We're going to need guys to step up,' and he said I need to be one of those guys and that I've got to be putting in my work over the summer," said Francis, who scored 77 points (44 goals, 33 assists) in 123 CCHL games from 2016-19.
"I started in this program wanting to be part of building it into something, and it seems that's the direction it's moving in now. I'm going back. I'm hoping to continue that."
Photos courtesy: Dave Mattey, Carleton Place Canadians, and Lisa Ramos