By MATT WELLENS
For The Daily News
MARQUETTE - When the University of Alabama-Huntsville makes its pitch today at the NCAA convention in Dallas, Texas, to become the 10th member of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, Northern Michigan University's contingent of Athletic Director Forrest Karr and President David Haynes will be paying attention to three key issues.
Direct flights to Huntsville, Ala., from Chicago and Detroit are important and so is the amount of potential missed class time by student athletes.
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The big issue, however, will be the kind of travel subsidy offered - if any.
Chargers' Athletic Director E.J. Brophy believes Karr, Haynes and the rest of the league will like what UAH President Robery Altenkirch has to say on that subject.
"I'm not going to go into detail right now," Brophy said by phone from Huntsville on Monday. "I'll only say our president will be addressing that Thursday and the people sitting in that room will be very happy with what he has to say."
Now in the 11th hour, the Chargers' hockey program is ready to put everything on the table for the nine future members of the WCHA this week in an attempt join the league and save its hockey program, which is the lone independent left in NCAA Division I hockey following the collapse of College Hockey America in 2010.
UAH will need approval from seven of the WCHA's nine presidents and chancellors with NMU, Michigan Tech, Lake Superior State, Ferris State, Bowling Green State, Alaska-Anchorage and Alaska-Fairbanks set to make up the league in 2013-14.
"For us to get into the WCHA, it would be like opening the gates of heaven for our hockey program," Brophy said. "It really would."
The lack of a league has hindered the Chargers' recruiting efforts over the past three seasons because an inability to reach the NCAA tournament. A severe lack of home games at the team's recently renovated, 6,602-seat Von Braun Center doesn't help either.
No league means no automatic NCAA bid for UAH to chase after, or a set amount of home games in a year.
"If you look at how we played hockey before we became an independent, it's pretty darn attractive," Brophy said. "Since we've become an independent three years ago - we've played three full seasons just about as an independent - it has not been attractive. It's hard to schedule, it's hard to win, it's hard to recruit and we are basically going on the road and playing powerhouses every time we go on the road."
A travel subsidy similar to what the Alaska-Fairbanks and Alaska-Anchorage offer will go a long way to opening those gates, according to Karr, who was the AD at UAF for seven years prior to taking over NMU's athletic department in June.
"As we go into this new WCHA conference, we know that costs are going to increase for a variety of reasons," said Karr. "We'd like to make sure adding another member institution doesn't directly impact our budget."
WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod said a travel subsidy from UAH is not only a major concern for rest of the league, but for him as well.
Only McLeod wants to know whether or not the Chargers can afford the costs of hotel rooms, place tickets and ground transportation for the other nine league members, while still being competitive.
"They have to do something that makes sense in the long term for their program," McLeod said. "Under normal circumstances, not counting any kind of subsidies, you are talking probably spending a ($1.3 million) on the hockey program to be competitive.
"They better be aware of what they are getting into in the long term here."