NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and sites operated by Lockheed Martin and GE Aviation make Huntsville, Ala., a hub for some of the world’s top engineers. Now there is a push to make the city an incubator of hockey talent.
At the center of the effort is the men’s hockey team from the University of Alabama in Huntsville, the only N.C.A.A. Division I club in the Southeast. The Chargers have mostly struggled since returning to Division I in 1998, but their influence in Huntsville is starting to get results.
With one local player shining in the N.H.L., another starring for the Chargers and the team enjoying its first competitive season in a decade, Huntsville could be on the verge of a new era in hockey.
“We’re still in building mode, but we like to think we’re good enough right now to be able to turn the corner,” said Chargers Coach Mike Corbett, who joined the program in 2013.
“We’ve been really good at times, and other times we’re kind of scared to succeed,” he added. “We’ve just got to go for it and go in there and take our swings and see what happens.”
Through three decades, the program mostly operated on the fringes of college hockey, though the Chargers won two Division II national championships in the 1990s. After rejoining Division I, the program was primarily a member of College Hockey America, a lower-level conference that the Chargers won twice to reach the N.C.A.A. tournament.
But the conference folded its men’s division in 2010. After its petition to join the Central Collegiate Hockey Association was rejected in 2009, the program found a home when it joined the far-flung Western Collegiate Hockey Association in 2013. Again, the team struggled, going a combined 14-62-8 against conference rivals in its first three W.C.H.A. seasons.
The first indication that the program could develop top talent was the rise of goaltender Cam Talbot. A Canadian who starred in Huntsville for three seasons, Talbot was signed by the Rangers as an undrafted free agent in 2010 and has since established himself as a starter with the Edmonton Oilers.
“Not too many people can believe the route that I took, but I wouldn’t change it,” Talbot said. “I hope that anything that I’ve been doing at this level is helping out that program. They gave me my start and the opportunity I needed.”
While Talbot worked his way up the pro hockey ranks from minor leaguer to N.H.L. starter, Alabama-Huntsville looked to work its way up. In the process, it helped build the North Alabama Hockey Association, which includes a youth program with roughly 900 participants on close to 40 travel and nontravel teams competing in seven age groups.
The local youth program operates out of the Chargers’ practice facility and has worked with the college program and the local pro team, the Huntsville Havoc of the Southern Professional Hockey League.
“We always send the kids to the hockey games,” said Martin Kubaliak, the association.’s director of hockey. “We have kids skating on the ice between the periods. If another kid is watching that, they think: ‘I want to do that. That looks nice.’”
The program’s introductory Learn to Play program has also seen growth. Weekly skating sessions that typically drew 50 participants a year and a half ago now attract close to 80 children, Kubaliak said.
Aside from Talbot, though, the city had few tangible hockey success stories. Jared Ross, a Huntsville native and former Charger whose father, Doug, coached the team for 25 seasons, is believed to be the first Alabama native to play in the N.H.L. The younger Ross, now 34, played 13 games for the Philadelphia Flyers from 2008 to 2010. He has spent the past five seasons playing professionally in Germany.
But this season has brought the emergence of Los Angeles Kings forward Nic Dowd, a Huntsville native who grew up watching the Chargers.
“We went to a lot of games; my dad and I sat in the same area every time,” Dowd said. “That university is pretty heavily involved in the youth organizations down there. The program is awesome.”
A graduate of the Huntsville youth program, Dowd was recruited by Alabama-Huntsville before committing to St. Cloud State in Minnesota. A picked in the seventh round of the 2009 draft by the Kings, he has enjoyed a fast start this season, collecting 11 points in his first 22 games.
Dowd never played for the Chargers, but his N.H.L. exploits have not gone unnoticed back home.
“He’s gone all the way, ” said Josh Kestner, a junior forward for the Chargers. “He’s made it to the N.H.L. Kids look up to him, and the kids want to be where he is at. It’s something special. He’s a special player.”
Another homegrown player groomed by the local youth program, Kestner leads the team with 12 points in 16 games. Perhaps just as crucial to the program as Kestner’s scoring pace has been the team’s competitive play within its conference.
Entering this weekend’s home games against Ferris State, the Chargers are 4-6-2 in the conference. With more than half of its conference games remaining, the prospect of a winning W.C.H.A. record and a favorable position in the conference playoffs is not out of the question.
That would greatly assist Corbett in his plan to establish Huntsville as a hub in the final untapped hockey market in the United States.
“You say local, Huntsville, Alabama. I say Southeast district. I say Tennessee, Georgia, Florida,” Corbett said. “I go into those areas. That’s kind of the way we look at it. We’re the closest Division I program for a lot of these kids. In order to have a successful program, you need to recruit your area. Our home area happens to be multiple states. That’s even better for us.”
Though much of Alabama-Huntsville’s current roster is made up of Canadians and residents of Northern states, it also includes the Georgia native Adam Wilcox and the Florida native Austin Beaulieu. But like Dowd, most of the Southeast’s top players still typically choose to pursue hockey in more traditional markets.
Corbett wants to change that.
But until Alabama becomes a part of the conventional hockey map, players like Dowd expect to see raised eyebrows when people learn where they discovered hockey.
“When everyone finds out I’m from Alabama, it’s the same thing,” Dowd said. “‘How’d you end up playing hockey in Alabama?’ Same as everywhere else: a good youth program. There’s a lot of good players who went to Alabama-Huntsville. I’d like to think kids can realize it doesn’t matter where you play. If you’re good enough and play hard enough, you’ll be successful.”
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