When the puck drops in the University of Alaska Anchorage Seawolves’ first hockey game since the start of 2020, it will mark the fulfillment of a years-long journey for the team – a journey that has seen the team completely cut off, then saved with a Herculean show of support. hockey fans across Alaska and beyond. Those years saw a season canceled by the pandemic and another lost to the collapse and rebuilding of the program, followed by a slow and painstaking gathering of talent that could make the UAA a contender.
As the Seawolves hockey saga enters its next chapter, the task for local hockey fans is simple in comparison: show up for the team.
Ignominy, death and rebirth
The SAU hockey program received its death notice in September 2020, the victim of drastic budget cuts by Governor Mike Dunleavy. Hockey wasn’t the only one – in addition to a host of academic programs, the school’s gymnastics and alpine skiing programs were also axed. But there was hope for reinstatement: If the boosters could increase the program’s annual budget outside of university funding, the university’s board of trustees would consider adding them back.
Gymnastics and alpine skiing succeeded in doing so, an honor for their supporters. But the financial needs for hockey were twice as high as for the other two sports combined, and the question was whether a community that hadn’t strongly supported the team for at least a decade before the budget crash would would join their cause. Even before the team was phased out altogether, the UAA had moved games to the small Seawolf Sports Complex arena on campus as a cost-cutting measure; paying to host games in the almost empty Sullivan Arena could not be justified. The team had not prevailed in the Governor’s Cup intrastate series against rival Fairbanks Nanooks since 2009.
But the program’s death was a wake-up call for the greater hockey community, both in Anchorage and across the state. Alaska is proud to be a hockey state and Anchorage has a proud tradition as a hockey city – but suddenly there was no team left to sustain that status. More aces. No more sea dogs. The pipeline from youth hockey from Anchorage to the pros that once launched Scotty Gomez on his way to the Stanley Cup has been severed — some feared hopelessly.
What followed was an incredible fundraising effort that spanned youth hockey teams all the way to the Seattle Kraken, eventually achieving its goal of raising $3 million in just under a month. year to resurrect UAA hockey.
The long way back
Reaching the fundraising goal was only the first step in the life of the program. Former head coach Matt Curley left to coach in the United States Hockey League when the future of UAA hockey was uncertain, as did many of the team’s players, who were unwilling to sacrifice years of NCAA eligibility for a program whose existence was uncertain.
But one by one, the pieces came together. Former Chugiak High Mustang, UAA Seawolf and Alaska Aces player Matt Shasby has become the program’s new head coach. In January, he was able to recruit the head coach of the Fairbanks Ice Dogs Trevor Stewart, who led the Alaskan Interior junior hockey team to two national championships in the past decade; Stewart will be associate head coach of the Seawolves. Aided by new NCAA policies making transfers easier and providing players with an expanded year of eligibility due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, players have also returned.
Will all of this positive momentum carry over to success on the ice? That remains to be seen. A wellness story is no guarantee that a season will turn out the way you want it to, and rebuilding an entire hockey program almost from scratch is a major undertaking – one that won’t be completed in a single year, or even a few – one. But one thing is certain: if you want to know where the story is at, the best way is to be seated at the edge of the rink when the Seawolves face off on Friday, September 23 against Simon Fraser University. They have come so far; the least we can do is show us how far they can go. After all, UAA needs to rebuild itself as a hockey program, but Anchorage also has work to do to restore its reputation as a hockey city.