The “Hockey Capital of the South”
It’s not just a phrase then-Gov. George Wallace proclaimed in 1986 for Huntsville. It’s an honor earned.
After all, there’s been organized hockey in Huntsville for more than 50 years.
Yes, more than 50 years.
Besides also having the only NCAA Division I hockey program south of the Mason Dixon Line, here are a few other reasons why it’s hard to argue with the nickname:
- The UAH Chargers won three straight national club hockey championships in 1982-83-84.
- The Chargers won NCAA Division II national championships in 1996 and 1998.
- The Chargers were in the NCAA Division I national hockey championship tournament twice (2007 and 2010) and the Division II tournament four times.
- The Huntsville Channel Cats won the Southern Hockey League championship in 1996.
- The Channel Cats won the Central Hockey League championship in 1996.
- The Channel Cats won the South East Hockey League championship in 2004.
- The Huntsville Havoc won the Southern Professional Hockey League championship in 2011.
- In 1996, when the Cats and UAH won their championships, Huntsville became the first American city to win a professional and NCAA ice hockey championship in the same season – and still is.
- The NHL’s Nashville Predators played their first-ever game – an exhibition game – in Huntsville, not Nashville.
It all started at the Ice Palace
And it all started in 1962 at a little rink just off Governors Drive, then-known as Fifth Avenue, when one Sunday afternoon a mom wanted a dad to take the boys skating because they were “kinda driving us crazy.”
Fred Hudson got the boys in the car and drove to the Ice Palace, which was owned by Ben Wilcoxen, whose name is on Huntsville’s Municipal Ice Complex.
“It had been a while since I skated but I guess I looked like I knew what I was doing doing because Ben asked me if I had been a hockey player,” said Hudson, a Connecticut native. “He asked if I had interest in starting a youth hockey program.”
Wilcoxen wanted the YMCA involved, Hudson said.
By Monday, Y Director Lawrence Cross had 60 kids signed up to play hockey.
Hudson said he was prepared to have the kids wear work gloves and rolled-up magazines as shin guards. But Cross had a stack of catalogs and told Hudson to pick out what he needed.
So, the first Huntsville hockey players had the finest equipment available in 1962 and were ready for their first practice.
“The 60 kids had their equipment and we had about 60 ‘coaches’ show up,” Hudson said.
But, just because they had top-of-the-line gear, well …
“I had them lined up and blew the whistle,” Hudson said.
About half of them fell.
Just one player skated to the other end of the ice; he was the son of a Canadian soldier stationed at Redstone Arsenal.
Hudson devised some drills and eventually the kids were playing hockey.
The players were fast learners and, two years later, the program was invited to an international youth hockey tournament – the Silver Stick.
Soon after, Huntsville was asked to host a Silver Stick tournament and still does.
But, the program outgrew the YMCA, mainly because of the expense of running ice hockey teams. Ed Ragland, a local businessman and a member of the YMCA board, got the ball – or, puck – rolling for a separate organization to run hockey.
The Huntsville Amateur Hockey Association was born.
HAHA became a dominant youth hockey organization in the South and produced talented players, some who would be the founders of a program that would become synonymous with hockey in the South – the University of Alabama in Huntsville.
The UAH Chargers
One night in 1978, the Von Braun Civic Center hosted a college club hockey game that included Vanderbilt University. In the audience, were Wayne Zeek and Joe Ritch, both alumni of HAHA.
Not overly impressed with the talent on the ice, Zeek told Ritch that Huntsville can have club hockey and probably be successful.
Ritch, a local attorney and UAH graduate, got the university to back a club program that took the ice in 1979 and was in the Southern Collegiate Hockey Association. Zeek was a goalie on the team and Ritch was the coach.
The first Chargers team was made up primarily of Huntsville players, several who had played hockey in college elsewhere. Other players were among those who had moved here from Michigan and elsewhere.
Though the Chargers lost their first home game – “We were more concerned about how we looked in front of our families,” Zeek said – they rolled through the SCHA and won the championship.
The Chargers, with basically the same lineup, repeated as SCHA champions the next season after destroying the “competition” by a nearly 9-1 margin in every game.
Ritch beefed up the team’s schedule in 1981, playing schools such as Illinois, Illinois State, Duke, North Carolina and others, along with its SCHA schedule that included Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Auburn. To play the harder schedule, he “recruited” players by placing an ad in “The Hockey News.”
The response was amazing and so was the team. The Chargers featured a lineup with players from Michigan, the Canadian provinces of British Columbia, Ontario and Alberta, as well as a core of Huntsville players.
Nicknamed the “Von Braun Bullies” for their physical, intimidating style, the Chargers again rolled through their schedule and were invited to the Jofa Invitational National Club Championship tournament in Boulder, CO. They would face the likes of Penn State, Northern Arizona, SMU, Colorado and Marquette – and they would go through undefeated, capped off by a 14-2 smashing of SMU in the championship game.
The UAH administration saw it had something good on its plate and Ritch suggested the school find an “actual” hockey coach. The seeds were being sown for the Chargers to go varsity.
Real college hockey
Doug Ross, the coach of Kent State and a member of the 1976 U.S. Olympic hockey team, answered an ad in, yep, “The Hockey News” for the UAH coach’s position.
Ross moved the team out of the SCHA and into the Central States Collegiate Hockey League. The competition was tougher and UAH lost in the championship game. However, the Chargers repeated as national club hockey champions by winning the national tournament. They made it three in a row by winning the 1984 tournament.
In 1985, the Chargers went varsity and joined the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. The school’s other teams belonged to the NAIA, so it was a natural fit.
However, the NCAA is the way to go and UAH became a Division I program in the 1986-87 season. But, there was no conference and the team struggled as an independent for several years before the NCAA established Division II hockey in 1992.
Here, the Chargers flourished. They reached the Division II national tournament four times over the next six years, winning the national championship twice and runner-up the other two times.
The pro game comes calling
Seeing the success of hockey on the college level, the East Coast Hockey League started the Huntsville Blast in the 1993 season. The team lasted only a year because the ownership was not local and not involved but it sparked local business leaders to bring another minor league team to Huntsville.
The Huntsville Channel Cats came about in 1995 when two Knoxville men placed a team in Huntsville in the newly formed Southern Hockey League. The Cats had a rambunctious style of play and won the SHL championship.
However, the SHL folded and Huntsville moved into the Central Hockey League – one of the most respected and known minor league.
The Cats played four seasons in the CHL, winning the championship in the 1998-99 season.
Huntsville had a franchise the following season, but new ownership changed the name to the Tornado and that team lasted just the 2000-01 season and the Rocket City was without pro hockey for the next two years.
NCAA Division I
Meanwhile, UAH had moved up to Division I and was a founding member of College Hockey America, a six-team league. The Chargers won the CHA regular season title in 2000 and 2003 but did not win the league tournament which included an automatic bid to the NCAA national championship tournament.
However, UAH won the league tournament in 2006-07 and faced Notre Dame in the first round of the national tournament, falling 3-2 to the top-ranked Irish in double overtime.
The Chargers won the last CHA tournament in 2009-10, the league was folding, and advanced to the NCAA tournament, only to lose to top-ranked Miami 2-1.
UAH is now in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, which includes long-time rival Bemidji State.
The Havoc is born
After the Channel Cats and the SEHL folded following the 2003-04 season, Keith Jeffries, who operated the Cats, started the Havoc in the new Southern Professional Hockey League.
The team is in its 10th season and won the SPHL championship in the 2009-10 season.
The hockey capital
In the meantime, HAHA changed its name to North Alabama Hockey Association and has nearly 600 players in its fold.
There is now a strong youth program called The Thunder which places kids in the junior level of ice hockey.
And it all started at a little rink with a bunch of kids who fell on their faces in the first workout.
“When it started in ’62, I never imagined it would be like this,” said Hudson, the father of Huntsville hockey. “It’s been a fantastic ride.”
See our gallery of vintage Huntsville hockey photos