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Alabama-Huntsville Brings Hockey Title To South

March 11, 1996 GMT

It could have passed for a hockey celebration on any rink in the frozen north. The crowd counted down _ ``Five ... four ... three ...″ and sticks and helmets sailed through the air.

Then ``Sweet Home Alabama″ filled the arena and gave it away _ the University of Alabama at Huntsville had won the South’s first college hockey championship.

The Alabama-Huntsville Chargers, the only college hockey team south of the Mason-Dixon line, beat Bemidji State, Minn., 3-0 Saturday night for the NCAA Division II championship. The Chargers (26-0-3) also became the first team in Division II history to go undefeated and the first college team to do it since Cornell in 1971.

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``This is real big down here,″ said coach Doug Ross, who played on the 1976 U.S. Olympic team. ``A lot of people don’t know that we’ve got a hockey team.″

True enough, if you’re looking for a place to hide a hockey team, Huntsville, Ala., is a good place to start. The state’s sports passions are mostly wrapped up in college football and stock car racing. The city, just a short drive from the Tennessee line, is mostly known as the site of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center and a haven for science nerds.

``Most of the guys from Canada or Michigan, they go, `Alabama? Wow, they can’t play hockey there,″ senior left wing Mario Mazzuca said.

This made the Chargers’ championship party even more satisfying. On Monday, Mazzuca’s answering machine announced, ``You’ve reached the home of the national champions. We’re probably out partying. Leave a message.″

Mazzuca was on the bench as the last few seconds ticked away in Saturday’s title-clinching game.

``Our bench didn’t even wait until the buzzer went off,″ said Mazzuca, the Chargers’ top scorer with 35 goals and 58 points. ``We knew we won it. I remember saying, `It’s finally over. We did it.′ We were throwing gloves and helmets. It was the best feeling I’ve ever had in my life.″

Despite the school’s Southern locale, most of the Alabama-Huntsville players are from the north. Mazzuca is from Dearborn, Mich. The Chargers’ goalie, Derek Puppa, came all the way from Kirkland Lake, Ontario.

Most were marginal college prospects that bought Ross’ idea that a championship team could be built in such an unusual hockey setting. Many didn’t have a choice.

``I didn’t have any other place to go,″ Mazzuca said. ``I just wanted to play college hockey.″

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Surprisingly, they’ve been playing hockey in Huntsville since 1979. The Chargers gradually moved up to NAIA and eventually NCAA Division I, where they took some terrible beatings. When the NCAA brought the Division II tournament back in 1993, the school dropped back and found it could be a contender instead of a doormat.

Alabama-Huntsville was ranked No. 1 for the entire 1994 season, before losing to Bemidji State in the title game. There was controversy last year, when the Chargers were denied an invitation to the championship round despite a 20-5-2 record. Bemidji won the title.

This season, Alabama-Huntsville continued its dominance, outscoring opponents 185-51. Puppa started 27 games and posted a remarkable 1.80 goals against average.

In Friday’s preliminary game against Bemidji, Puppa allowed only one goal on 27 shots. He stopped all 22 in Saturday’s title game.

``We had a 3-0 lead and knew we just had to hang on,″ said Puppa, whose brother, Daren, plays for the Tampa Bay Lightning. ``The whole third period felt good.″

Like most Division II players, Puppa figures he’s a longshot to make the NHL. Mazzuca said he might have a shot at playing in the East Coast Hockey League. That strange hockey party that erupted the other night on the edge of the Tennessee Valley might be their last.

``That’s about the extent of a Division II hockey player’s career,″ Mazzuca said.

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