Skating Uphill: Alaska college hockey programs embrace independence while aiming for stability.
Although there was a transitional period for both Alaska schools--each played in the WCHA during the conference's farewell 2019/2020 season--the Seawolves and Nanooks were tasked with forging new futures without conference affiliation. That was especially challenging because college athletics schedules are often finalized years in advance, and both schools relied on their WCHA games to make up the bulk of their schedules.
"You're frustrated that your program is in that spot and that there's some uncertainty with what's going to happen next," says UAF head coach Erik Largen as he reflects on the 2019 announcement that Bemidji State University, Bowling Green State University, Ferris State University, Lake Superior State University, Michigan Technological University, Minnesota State University, and Northern Michigan University were leaving the WCHA. "You spend a little time with those feelings, but then you just have to move on and try to find solutions."
UAA and UAF faced different challenges once the WCHA dissolved, but both institutions ultimately arrived at the same decision: college hockey is essential to Alaska, so the two programs would operate independently, without conference affiliation, for the immediate future.
After the COVID-19 pandemic sidelined UAA and UAF for the entire 2020/2021 season, both programs shifted their attention to the future. Fairbanks committed to playing the 2021/2022 season as an independent, but Anchorage found itself at a crossroads and faced potential extinction. In September 2020, the UA System Board of Regents announced it would eliminate alpine skiing, hockey, and gymnastics from UAA's athletic department unless the programs could raise enough money through donations and pledges to cover two years of operating costs. UAA hockey had the biggest hill to climb, needing $3 million compared to the $880,000 and $628,000 the gymnastics and ski programs needed to raise, respectively.
While fundraising efforts organized under the banner "Save Seawolf Hockey" in Anchorage, Largen and UAF's athletic department began filling out a schedule for its return to play in 2021.
"We were definitely behind the eight ball," Largen says. "We ended up having some interesting road trips, and we had more away games than home games. That was kind of a consequence of not having as much time to prepare for the independent schedule."
UAF was also experiencing changes behind the scenes, as it named Brock Anundson its new athletic director effective July 2021. By the time Anundson arrived, however, Largen had already completed the schedule.
"The benefit for me was Erik had already put together an unbelievable schedule from the previous year," says Anundson. "When it comes to building the program as an independent, we started day one last year together on the phone with different conference commissioners and different head coaches gauging the landscape."
An Independent Debut
The 2021/2022 season wasn't the first time UAF had to go it alone. The Nanooks have a history of operating outside of a conference, dating to the school's inaugural 1925 hockey season. More recently, the program experienced success as an independent from 1987 until 1994, when it joined the Central Collegiate Hockey Association. Conference realignment swept the nation in 2011, and UAF accepted an invitation to join the WCHA for 2013.
The 2021/2022 season still was a unique undertaking for the Nanooks athletic department. In addition to scheduling games, Largen and support staff had the challenge of scheduling flights, bus rides, hotels, and practice sessions in markets where the program either hadn't played in a long time or, in some cases, had never visited before. In all, UAF was the most well-traveled college hockey program in the nation last year, playing twenty regular-season away games. They made road trips to Arizona, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York, and Vermont, and they also played an exhibition game against the US National Team Development U18 Program in Michigan.
For Anundson, Largen, and UAF's players, experiencing different environments was a thrill.
"I know that, being in the WCHA, there was a lot of great competition and some really good teams, but I thought going independent was really cool to get to see a bunch of different schools we've never seen before," says Colin Doyle, a senior forward from Campbellford, Ontario. "I thought it was a great experience going out east to play Maine and Vermont, and I think the New York trip to Long Island was awesome. Seeing New York City was a really cool experience, and then going to Duluth, Minnesota and Denver were really cool arenas with good fans. The barns were really electric there, so it was cool to play in front of fans like that and, at same time, see some pretty cool cities."
Adds Brady Risk, a sophomore forward from Medicine Hat, Alberta: "Playing the Minnesota Gophers in Minnesota was pretty unreal. They had like 8,000 people there, and then we won and had a great night with the guys."
Largen, a Fairbanks native and former Nanooks player, sees a bright side to going independent.
"When you're talking about the student-athlete experience and what you want from that, I think there's a lot of benefits to now being an independent because during their four years they're going to get a chance to play in a lot of different places," says Largen. "Outside of the hockey component, the other piece is creating an experience for them, whether that's seeing the falls in Ithaca or going to NHL games or bowling--we want them to enjoy the trips and have experiences they can look back on and remember fondly."
On August 31, 2021, UAA Chancellor Sean Parnell announced that the school's hockey program succeeded in its $3 million fundraising goal and would avoid elimination. However, the school still faced challenges after not fielding a hockey team for two seasons. When UAA hockey alum Matt Shasby was announced last October as the seventh head hockey coach in UAA history, the race was on to build a coaching staff, a roster of players, and a game schedule in less than a year.
"I think that's why they hired when they did--it needed to be done in order for whoever got the job to have a decent-enough time to get ready for the 2022/2023 season," says Shasby, who played 127 games for the Seawolves from 1999 to 2003.
Unlike Largen and UAF, Shasby was starting from scratch.
"I kind of prioritized the schedule because, obviously, without a schedule, there's no season," says Shasby. "I was told most teams' schedules were built out and that 'You don't stand a chance of building out a schedule.' But I was pleasantly surprised that a lot of teams still had holes." He managed to assemble a slate that, like UAF, puts the Seawolves on the road throughout the country, even playing six games against club teams, unaffiliated with a school.
There's no season without players, either, but Shasby was able to point to scheduled games as a selling point when recruiting. The coach is bringing in twelve freshmen in addition to fifteen players joining as transfers.
"We don't have a single guy from previous tenures. There was a two-year gap and all those players moved on," says Shasby. "We want that freshman class to be a group of tough kids who know what it takes to persevere and aren't going to whine when the going gets tough."
Among the incoming freshmen is Brandon Lajoie of Eagle River, who says he's always viewed the UAA hockey program as an inspiration. "It was always like, 'Oh, I want to be like that. I want to do that in the future,'" he says. "It was always an inspiration and a goal in a way."
Lajoie says he and his teammates understand what they're up against, but they are excited to show that UAA is still a viable and competitive Division I program.
"I think all of us have a little bit of a chip on our shoulders and that we want to prove something," says Lajoie. "I think everyone wants to come in and show the whole world, hey, we're here to play and we're not here to go away."
Ask Largen or Shasby about reigniting the UAA/UAF hockey rivalry, and both coaches set their eyes on the Alaska Airlines Governor's Cup, the annual award to the team that wins more games against each other during the season. Both programs have six meetings scheduled this winter.
"It's nice to have some more games where we have a natural rival, so at least when we're playing an away game we don't have to travel so far," says Largen. "It's built-in great attendance, so from a financial perspective... we're going to save on our travel budget, and it's going to bring in more revenue when they come here because it's usually one of our higher-attended series of the year."
Shasby agrees those in-state games are the biggest in the lineup. "That's what college sports is all about, having those rivalries," he says. "We need them to be a successful, thriving program because it's only going to make us that much better. When we came back, I know Fairbanks and Fairbanks alumni were big supporters of Save the Seawolves. That relationship goes both ways and it's huge for our program."
Both UAA and UAF view their independent status as temporary and aim to join a conference again. Both coaches say their athletic departments are monitoring the landscape of college hockey and weighing potential options. Shasby is also concerned about whether UAA can secure funding to remodel or rebuild the Seawolf Sports Complex rink.
"If we remodel our on-campus rink, then we don't really have anywhere to play for a year during the remodel," says Shasby, "so now we're going to throw into the mix potentially exploring putting a new building on campus. If that's not the case and we have to play a year in a rink around town, it is what it is."
Playing an independent season convinced Largen that college hockey in Alaska is a resilient institution.
"No one has a crystal ball--it doesn't matter how big of a program you are--you don't know what it's going to look like twenty years down the road," Largen says, "but I would be shocked if during my lifetime Alaska Nanook hockey ever went away or wasn't a strong program. I think there's too much support in this community and around this campus, and I think hockey is a mainstay in Alaskan sports and culture and I don't think it'll ever go away."
By Brad Joyal
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|Publication:||Alaska Business Monthly|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2022|
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