While supporters of the canceled hockey program at the University of Alabama in Huntsville this week frantically try to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to save the sport that has long elevated the school’s profile, more is needed.
It's not just money that will save hockey. Commitment from the school is also needed as well as a change of culture around the program. And according to former UAH All-American defenseman Sheldon Wolitski – now a successful businessman and major donor to the program – school president Darren Dawson agrees.
"You've got to fix the core of the problem," Wolitski said in an interview with AL.com earlier this week. "And the core of the problem lies around getting a strong marketing team, getting corporate donations, getting fans in the seats, getting a winning tradition."
The fundraising push this week is essentially a temporary test of financial support for the program. Dawson told Wolitski and his former UAH teammate Taso Sofikitis that if the private sector would raise $750,000 by Friday – roughly 50 percent of a hockey season budget – that the school would bring back the sport canceled because, according to a statement from the president and athletic director Cade Smith, of the financial strain it puts on the school now fighting through the coronavirus pandemic.
As of Thursday morning, a GoFundMe account for hockey had received pledges for more than $270,000. Wolitski said he and Sofikitis would together make a donation of $300,000.
At this point, Wolitski said the money is to "keep the lights on" in the program. If supporters can buy another season of hockey and -- more importantly – time, there would be a chance to rehabilitate the hockey program culture that has suffered in recent years with poor results on the ice and dwindling support in the stands.
"It's like we're in bankruptcy right now," Wolitski said. "When you're in bankruptcy, you make some major, major changes."
Dawson has declined interview requests from AL.com and has not commented publicly on ending the hockey program as well as the men and women’s tennis program since that May 22 statement.
Smith, the athletic director, said it's clear that Wolitiski and Sofikitis has a vision for the program beyond the Friday fundraising deadline.
"Those guys want to do it right and we want to do it right," Smith said. "They want it to be first class."
The fundraising effort, if successful, "gives them time to come up with a plan," Smith said.
Still, even at about $1.5 million for a season, hockey is underfunded at UAH as well as all sports, Smith said. Cutting hockey and the tennis program would allow the school to more fully fund the remaining sports, he said.
The annual savings to the athletic department by shedding hockey and tennis would be about $1.8 million, according to Smith.
"That's getting close to 25 percent of our budget was going to be saved and get us through a tough financial time and be able to improve our other sports that are extremely underfunded, as those sports are," Smith said.
Back to the Memorial Day meeting with Dawson, Wolitski asked for a strong voice for the hockey program beyond the athletic department.
"I said if we could put together an advisory council of UAH alumni, business leaders, business people, community leaders and we advise UAH of what we need to do to turn this program around, and he said, '100 percent, we will give you that,'" Wolitski said. "That gave me some excitement. I just feel like we can't continue doing what we're doing and expect to produce great results."
Wolitski said such a request was not a reflection on Dawson, Smith or anyone at UAH.
"They're not hockey people," Wolitski said. "They're academics. They're not really businesspeople, either. You need a lot of really smart people in order to make things world class. It's no offense to the administration. They've got other things they need to focus on. Let people who have some skin in the game, some passion, let us focus on that. And I appreciated him doing that because we really need a lot of strong minds together to really turn this into what we all want it to be, what it used to be."
To achieve that objective, mountainous challenges await. Private funding will be needed beyond this week to help sustain the program. The Chargers do not have a conference at this point after the Western Collegiate Hockey Association essentially dropped them last summer. The Chargers do not have an on-campus arena and must compete with the professional Huntsville Havoc for prime schedule spots at the Von Braun Center.
And there is the fact that the hockey program has been canceled twice in nine years, a bruise that won't easily heal.
"Obviously, there is some damage done," Smith said. "Obviously, people would think we're not committed to hockey. We canceled the program. That's some obvious damage on that. With that being said, I go back to what I said before, you know, the track record for following through when they said they were going to do that (when the program was canceled in 2011, then brought back weeks later).
"That’s not to knock amounts or anything that were pledged or given at all. But we've tried that before."
There were plans for a campus expansion that would include a multi-use arena that would give hockey, as well as basketball, a sparkling new home. But those plans were the vision of former president Robert Altenkirch, who retired last year, and Wolitski said talk of a new arena, "fell by the wayside."
Even so, there was no funding attached to the arena plan when proposed last year to the UA System Board of Trustees. The school said it is in the process of hiring a development manager to start the process of the campus expansion but under the best of scenarios, a new arena would be years away.
As Friday's deadline approaches, though, UAH hockey needs more than money, Wolitski said.
“We raised the money to save the program (in 2011) but we didn’t make any major changes,” Wolitski said. “To me, change needs to happen.”
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