MARQUETTE - The nine future presidents of the WCHA voted Thursday to admit the University of Alabama-Huntsville as its 10th member for next season, which will be the first for the new-look conference after it replaces the eight schools lost to the NCHC and Big Ten with five from the CCHA.
The Chargers made their case to WCHA presidents and athletic directors at the NCAA Convention in Dallas, Texas on Thursday morning, touting the hockey program's history, the university's high academic standing and the community's relationship with NASA.
UAH also presented the league with easy travel options to Huntsville, a scheduling format that will reduce the number of trips teams must make in a season to both Alaska-Anchorage and Alaska-Fairbanks and an all important travel subsidy to keep costs down.
WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod said UAH will be paying a similar subsidy to what was worked out for both UAF and UAA recently, which he said is less complicated for the other seven schools and more fair for the three outlying universities.
"All we're trying to do ... is not have it cost anymore than the highest cost trip for anyone in the lower 48," McLeod said.
"Rather than buying X-number of tickets and giving you this and giving you that, we agreed on a firm number and that's the check that Alaska will write to the visiting schools. It's a different approach than in the past, but I think it's much, much more fair and what we're going to do is apply that same formula to Huntsville."
Meaning if Bowling Green State is the most expensive trip for Northern Michigan University and Michigan Tech University, then neither would pay more than that sum to visit Huntsville, Ala., Fairbanks, Alaska, and Anchorage, Alaska.
"We used the same premise and we used the same model and came up with a number everyone was pleased with," UAH athletic director E. J. Brophy said from the convention in Dallas.
"The number is an attractive number. It was unanimously agreed upon, a range. Everybody was very happy with that number and that got us over the hurdle. From then on, it was smooth sailing."
Michigan Tech head coach Mel Pearson, who was not at the convention in Dallas, said a travel subsidy was not the deciding factor when it came to admitting UAH, though it was an important one.
"There's no question about it, especially in this day and age with tight budgets within universities and athletic departments," Pearson said. "I think it had to be discussed and had to be brought forward, especially because of the distance and travel.
"I think the presidents should be commended for the leadership they have shown in saving a program. They should be commended for saving a program like Alabama-Huntsville when other leagues would not."
All nine presidents from the future WCHA schools - UAF, UAA, Minnesota State-Mankato, Bemidji State, Tech, NMU, Lake Superior State, Ferris State and BGSU - voted in favor of adding UAH for 2013-14, though the Chargers only needed seven votes to get in.
NMU President David Haynes was not present for the vote due to an illness, but joined the meetings via phone.
"The final decision to admit Huntsville was made after many in-depth discussions and careful consideration," NMU athletic director Forrest Karr said via email from Dallas. "It wasn't the result of luck. E. J. Brophy deserves a great deal of credit on the UAH campus for his efforts over the last year. I tip my hat to him for aggressively pursuing this opportunity on behalf of his student-athletes."
Brophy said the Chargers would like to begin play in the WCHA right away next season after playing 12 home games and 20 road games in 2012-13 as an independent with their last home contest coming a week ago against the University of Oklahoma's club program. The Chargers play at Penn State on Feb. 8-9 and at Minnesota-Duluth on March 1-2 to finish what will be their last season as an independent.
Brophy said he would like to see the Chargers play a full 28-game WCHA schedule next season, but McLeod said that could be difficult considering the league has already set it schedule for the next two seasons, plus school already have nonconference contracts signed through 2014-15.
"It's not impossible," McLeod said. "That will be our first effort, to see if there is any way to address the schedule to see if we can include them in the regular season schedule for next year. If not, we go to plan B. We're going to make every effort we possibly can."
"If there is some sort of middle ground, we'll encourage and give them as many games as we can both home and away. We encourage our coaches to do anything they can to try to get them as much of a schedule as they possibly can."
The Chargers have been playing as an independent since the CHA folded after the 2009-10 season when Robert Morris and Niagara left for Atlantic Hockey and Bemidji State joined the WCHA.
The Chargers finished 12-18-3 that season, won the final CHA tournament title and lost to No. 1 overall seed Miami in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. Since then, the Chargers have only won nine games.
This year UAH is 3-17-1 overall with two wins over NCAA Division III Finlandia, a win over LSSU and tie with Mankato.
"The last time we were in a conference, we won a conference championship," Brophy said. "That will be our goal in the WCHA, to win one as quickly as we can. We know it will be very, very difficult."
Matt Wellens can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/mattwellens