It’s been a few years since the University of Alabama in Huntsville has iced a team that is known to be competitive. After going through the potential loss of the hockey team, to playing as an independent, the organization has gone through man rough patches. Now, in its second year in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA), head Coach Mike Corbett is helping lead the Chargers out of obscurity. While the program is continuing its re-emergence after almost being completely lost, Corbett, along with a multitude of young stars, has turned last season’s 2-35-1 overall record into 7-16-3 with still a month and half of the season to go. With five of those seven wins coming at home, it’s been something great to build on for the program.
“Especially since we haven’t won in three years and 30-plus home games, that was very nice to get that bad stat off of our ledger,” said head coach Mike Corbett. “We want to be able to show people that we’re getting better and we’re building. The only people that you want to show are your home fans, the people supporting you day in and day out. We’ve made that change and the guys are earning it.”
With so many young players on the roster, getting home wins is definitely a boost for the fans that have supported the Chargers through it all.
“They deserve it,” said goaltender Carmine Guerriero on the home wins. “We wanted it so bad for them last year, but it just never happened. It’s nice to finally get some wins at home and to thank the fans.”
Even as a freshmen, leading scorer Max McHugh (7G-10A) understands the team effort it takes to produce the wins in the ever-competitive WCHA.
“I feel great about it,” said McHugh. “It’s not just me, it’s the team. Just to be a part of it. We’re coming to these games expecting these two points. We’re not expecting a tie or overtime loss. We’re expecting to win. When we don’t win, it’s a disappointment. That’s the biggest thing.”
One of the more difficult challenges of playing in the WCHA is travel. The conference spans from Huntsville, Alabama to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, all the way over to Alaska. It’s not easy on the players, but it helps them continue to form strong bonds as a team.
“I like to travel when it’s just 25 guys, we jump on the bus,” said Corbett. “Wednesday we’re jumping on the bus to Michigan Tech and it’s just 25 guys going to do our thing. It’s a business trip and we have to get them to understand that. You can’t say anything bad about the travel, but it is what it is and you just have to make everyone as comfortable as possible, feed them well and make sure they get the rest.”
Of course when you put that many people in close quarters for a long period of time, there’s bound to be some frustrations, but overall, the company is enjoyed.
“It’s tough because some guys start hating each other for a bit,” Guerriero said jokingly. “It’s always a good time just being with the guys. Obviously those trips are very long and they take a lot out of you, but we’re getting used to it. The guys prank each other and it’s a good time. When we’re on the bus, there are a lot of card games, but on the planes we mostly just try to fall asleep.”
For some, travel is just second nature. Max McHugh played junior hockey before joining the Chargers. It helped him adapt to the longs hours spent on a bus.
“When I played in junior, I played for Wenatchee and we had almost the identical travel schedule to UAH,” said McHugh. “I’m actually used to it and that’s been nice for me. It’s not too bad. Even when we went to Alaska, that’s a long trip, but I played in Alaska my entire junior career, so I’m used to it. All around, it’s been easy to adjust.”
Added on to traveling long distances are academics. Not only are the players hitting the ice every weekend in games all over the country, they’re also expected to keep up with their studies. The university works hand in hand with the team to make sure the students continue to be successful.
“The fun part for us is that we’ve had so much support in the academic side,” said Corbett. “The kids are really good students and the professors help them. We communicate a lot with the professors. The boys have to go in and meet the professors and speak with them eye to eye and say who they are and be proud of who they are. The professors work with us and when the guys need it, they’re more than willing to help. I think it’s more of a credit to our academics than anything.”
While McHugh says he’s taking one of the less challenging majors, balancing school and athletics is never an easy task. He agrees with Corbett on how well the university handles it though.
“We have study hall and it’s not that bad,” said McHugh. “I’m going to be honest with you, I’m not taking the hardest major. I’m taking communications. I’m here mostly for hockey, but with the school part, they help you everything you do. If you want the help, you can get it. I’m just going to keep working on it.”
The Chargers have two more trips to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, followed by two home series and then closing at Bowling Green. All are conference games. They’ve been competitive in every game this season, and that includes registering a 3-3 tie against then-12th-ranked Nebraska-Omaha. The success will continue for UAH as Mike Corbett has the team believing in the system and each other.
Guerriro Getting Attention From The NHL
Goaltender Carmine Guerriero came to UAH as an emergency third goalie during the 2013-14 season. Head Coach Mike Corbett needed a third goalie on his roster before the season began and they quickly signed Guerriero to come to Alabama-Huntsville. They didn’t expect their third goalie to begin receiving national attention as he has this season.
It’s been noted how the Montreal, Quebec native consistently keeps the Chargers in every game they play. While the team is still working to reduce the number of shots they allow, Guerriero stops the majority of them.
“I’m just trying to stay consistent and not think of too much,” said Guerriero. “I’m just trying to control what I can control and face the next shot. That’s all I’m thinking about and I’m making the saves because of it.”
Currently, Guerriero is 7-9-2 for the Chargers this season. While the win-loss numbers may not be impressive, it’s the individual statistics that draw attention. Guerriero’s save percentage sits at .933, an outstanding number in any level of hockey. Although it’s at a completely different level, Pekka Rinne sits at .931. This save percentage puts Guerriero in a tie for ninth nationally in save percentage and he’s played more games than five goaltenders above him. Add to that a 2.32 goals against average and you have a tremendous player in net.
“Ryan Miller set the stage when he won the Hobey Baker years ago and they all said no goalie would ever win the Hobey Baker,” said Corbett. “He was roughly a .940 at a time when we thought .900 was really good. Now, it’s probably up to .910 or .920. Carmine is at a national level. It’s a level where you’re going to get some accolades. I look at save percentage as an individual stat for a goalie. His goals against is more team defense. That just shows what he’s done for us and the ability to keep us in games and win down the stretch.”
With these kinds of numbers, it’s no wonder Guerriero is garnering attention from NHL teams.
“Yes there has been interest,” said Corbett. “There have been calls and those types of things for him coming in the future. He’s focused on now and the more he can boost our program, the better off he’s going to be in the eyes of NHL scouts.”
Echoing his coach’s thoughts, Guerriero is focused on this season and winning games.
“I don’t even try thinking about that,” said Guerriero on the attention fro the NHL. “My objective on the ice is to win the game and that’s all I’m thinking about.”
McHugh Paving The Way
Freshman forward Max McHugh doesn’t have a story much different from others on this year’s Chargers. He’s playing far from home and wanted to come to a school to make a difference. He’s doing just that. In 26 games played, McHugh has tallied 17 points, good enough to lead the team in scoring by six points.
“I’m a freshmen and the guys have welcomed me right into the program,” said McHugh. “The coaches and weight staff have been great. They’ve worked on everything I need to improve on. They do it day in and day out. I’m getting bigger and stronger. You see it on the ice. This program is on the up and coming and I couldn’t be happier to be where I am right now.”
Having freshmen produce in their first year is important for a program still growing. It’s not often a freshmen is given as much ice time as McHugh, but he’s taken full advantage of it.
“He told me that he wanted me to come in and make a difference,” said McHugh on Corbett. “He’s given me the time on the ice to prove that. I want to make a difference every night and help this team win games not only for myself but for the team. I want us to be great.”
In recruiting, Corbett has noted how he wants players than can come in and directly make an impact on day one. Unlike other programs that have years of building depth, the Chargers need players that can produce instantly. McHugh has taken advantage of the opportunity Corbett has given him.
“His hockey sense and feel for the game is fantastic,” said Corbett on McHugh. “It’s a level above what we’ve had here in my time. Max is just so smart. Though he’s not the most athletic or quickest guy out there, he always seems to have the puck on his stick and slithers through areas. Nobody can really get a big hit on him either. That’s what’s so big is that he can anticipate. That’s where the innate hockey sense differentiates between good and great.”
Going to college is the path that McHugh knew he wanted to take. Growing up in Seattle meant he was surrounded by multiple major junior teams in the Western Hockey League, but it wasn’t what he wanted.
“I actually tried out, unofficially, for a couple of the teams just to get on their radar,” said McHugh. “I just knew that wasn’t the route for me. Ever since I was young, I knew the NCAA route was going to be for me and I’m very happy how it’s turned out.”
If he can continue on this path, the young forward will be making waves in the league by the end of his sophomore season.
Photo courtesy of UAH Hockey