Until this October, nearly every time Matt Salhany stepped out of a hockey rink after practice or a game, it was time to put a jacket on. Winter weather in the Northeast isn’t always pleasant, and it’s certainly not warm.
These days though, below the Mason-Dixon line in a state known for its college football much more than its college hockey, Salhany hasn’t had to break out the jacket too often. Shorts and a t-shirt are much more common.
It’s Alabama, after all.
“At the beginning of the year you’d get off the ice sweating, you’d shower up and you’d walk out to the outside and you’d be sweating again,” Salhany, a Warwick native and former Hendricken hockey player, said on Wednesday afternoon. “It was unbelievable.”
Such is life for hockey players at the University of Alabama-Huntsville, the only Division I hockey program in the southern states. A former standout in Warwick, Salhany is now one of the key parts of one of college hockey’s most unique programs.
A freshman, Salhany is UAH’s leading scorer with 10 points. He’s found an unlikely hockey home.
“It definitely feels more like home compared to the first couple weeks down here,” Salhany said. “It was a culture shock for sure.”
And why wouldn’t it be? The state, the lifestyle and program are a deviation from just about everything Salhany knew prior to stepping foot in Huntsville. A star at Hendricken for three years from 2008-10, he went to Tabor Academy in Massachusetts for two years before hooking up with the Boston Bandits of the Eastern Junior Hockey League, considered to be the top junior hockey league in the Northeast.
Salhany starred there as well, serving as the Bandits top-scorer from his forward position and drawing the interest of numerous Division I schools. Places like Providence College and Maine from the prestigious Hockey East Conference came calling, among others.
But Salhany wanted to be a part of something different.
“It’s definitely outside the box,” Salhany said. “Basically, I want to be a part of a rebirth, the rebuilding of a program and that’s what was special about this place.”
UAH also provided Salhany an opportunity to play right away, something that may not have happened had he committed to walk-on or even accept a scholarship at some of the other, more traditional schools.
Still, spurning places close to home to play hockey in Alabama was far from an easy choice. Salhany had never been to the state. Florida and Myrtle Beach made up his entire collection of time spent in the south prior to his official visit last year.
“It’s nothing like going to Alabama for the first time,” he said.
When he got down there, though, it just seemed like the right place to be.
“I couldn’t be any more happy,” he said. “I think it was a perfect fit and I’m very glad I stuck with this, as opposed to staying close to home.”
UAH actually has a rich hockey history, with the program taking up the mantle as college hockey’s home in the south during a Division I run in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. After that, it moved to D-II before climbing back to D-I in 1998-99. In the College Hockey America (CHA), UAH had plenty of success, making the NCAA Tournament in 2006-07 and winning a game, and then making it a second time in 2010.
After 2010, though, the conference disbanded, and UAH was forced to go independent. It struggled without a home, winning a combined five games the past two seasons.
Prior to this season, UAH received an opportunity to potentially get the program back on track. Under head coach Mike Corbett, it joined the Western College Hockey Association (WCHA), a conference that was realigning after sending six teams to the NCAA Tournament in 2013.
Even with a 1-24-1 record so far, Salhany can see the writing on the wall for the program’s future. He wants to be a part of UAH’s resurgence.
“There’s a rich history with the program,” Salhany said. “We’re revamping our locker room, we’re getting good recruits and you can’t beat playing Division I hockey down in Alabama. I think we’re headed in the right direction, and nothing but good signs for years to come.”
The team is made up of players from all over. The roster features 13 players from Canada, one from England, another from Sweden and others from places like Minnesota, Boston, Connecticut and California.
And since UAH is one-of-a-kind as it pertains to geography, the travel within the conference has been a treat. The distances are far, but the experiences have been incredible.
Joining UAH in the WHCA are Ferris State, Minnesota State, Bowling Green, Alaska Anchorage, Bemidji State, Northern Michigan, Lake Superior State, Michigan Tech and Alaska.
“A lot of traveling, but it’s unbelievable seeing the country,” Salhany said. “Going to Alaska, we saw Lambeau Field, Notre Dame is unbelievable. It’s tough, school-wise and being on the road a lot, but it’s unbelievable seeing a lot of the states and lot of the country.”
It’s been a freshman year to remember, too. Salhany has played in 23 consecutive games, and is the only player on the team with a double-digit scoring total. His 10 points place him in the top-10 of all WCHA freshmen. In his first-ever D-I game, he stepped on the ice for a road game at Northeastern in front of 25 family members.
It’s also been the first step of what he hopes is a journey toward building the program and making hockey more of a staple in the community and the region.
“It’s different,” he said. “I think a lot of people are finally opening up to it. Even Tuscaloosa is starting to get a big club program. It’s different for everybody. They don’t really know the rules or anything, but we’re definitely starting to get more and more support as this journey goes on in the WCHA.”
As of now, he’s enjoying the ride. UAH has 12 games remaining on its schedule, with the next two scheduled for the end of the month against Alaska out in Fairbanks.
On Wednesday, the weather was actually cold in Huntsville, with temperatures dipping below 30 degrees. That’s not the norm, although it did remind Salhany a little bit of home, where temperatures were below 20 degrees in Rhode Island.
He doesn’t want to be reminded too much though. Regardless of the temperature in Alabama, he still gets to play hockey, and Huntsville is exactly where he wants to be.
“Before I got down here I was promised that I could wear shorts every day in the winter,” Salhany said. “That hasn’t been the case, but it’s definitely been 50, 55 the past couple days. I love it.”