At 16 wins, 18 losses and three ties, the University of Alaska Anchorage Seawolves are not exactly a powerhouse of college hockey. But their climb to respectability in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association marks a significant improvement over years of sub-mediocrity. As recently as 2007-08 they had only three WCHA wins and only four in 2005-06. UAA has regularly been at the bottom of their league.
So 12 WCHA wins and a sweep of perennial powerhouse Minnesota on away ice landing them in the final playoffs looks pretty good.
I feel good for the loyal fans of real hockey who have suffered through humiliating seasons. I feel good for the players: a few Alaskans, a lot of Canadians and a goalie from Georgia who have heard the taunts from the student sections at the big schools: "com-un-i-ty col-lege" as the team went down to another defeat. (The taunt, in part, is in reference to the fact that many Outside community colleges have better facilities than UAA.) And I feel good for Coach Dave Shyak, who could have spent a few seasons in Anchorage and then moved on to a better endowed school but who stayed with the program, tending to unfinished business.
But the guy I really feel good for is the radio announcer of UAA hockey, Kurt Haider, who has been announcing the Seawolves for 15 years through all the gloomy seasons.
Announcers from the hockey hotbed schools have an entourage of broadcasters: a play-by-play guy, a color guy, a statistician, a technician or two and plenty of backups at the studio doing the commercials. At home games they sit in their comfortable press box and call the game.
Haider, on the other hand, does it mostly by himself. In addition to play-by-play he's usually his own color commentator, does his own statistics, does the between-period interviews and, often as not, does the commercials as well. All this, while announcing the fastest, most complicated game in sports. It's a game of time, space and position that challenges even a team of announcers to get it right. Haider sits on a folding chair at a table between the lower and upper tiers of Sullivan Area and effortlessly, or so it seems, calls the action and turns the dials as though it were easy.
Haider once told me he grew up listening to one of the best hockey announcers of all time, Al Shaver. Shaver did play-by-play for the old Minnesota North Stars but always returned to do the Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament because, he was quoted as saying, "it's pure hockey." Not goon hockey, not hockey played by overpaid professionals, but clean, fast hockey played for the joy of movement and intense competition.
College hockey is close to Shaver's pure hockey and Haider gets it. He'll give as much credit to a great pass by the opposing team as one by a Seawolf, thereby honoring the game. He'll give credit for a clean, hard, knee-buckling check but not degrade the sport by degenerating into violence veneration that other announcers use to titillate unsophisticated listeners.
He's stayed the course season after season despite the fact that he's spent too many cold December evenings in Grand Forks or Madison and the score is home team 7, Seawolves 0 with another long agonizing period to go. Lots of lonely losing nights.
In hockey, as in life, you've got to believe. With earnest effort someday things might turn around, but even if they don't, doing your best at a single moment of time over years, decades, is all that matters. For 15 years Haider honed his skills in the rinks of St. Cloud, Houghton, Duluth and Mankato.
So I was as thrilled for Haider as I was for the Seawolves when last Saturday he made the call in the UAA-Minnesota game: "AND HERE'S GRANT ON A BREAKAWAY. HE SHOOTS. HE SCORES! SEAWOLVES 2, GOPHERS 0."
And that's the way the game ended.
In the big scheme of things the importance of hockey and every other sport pales in the face of war, natural catastrophe, unemployment, domestic violence and on and on. But sport gives us a sense of what is possible and therein lies its meaning. Professionals with purpose like Haider are translators of the possible and vital in creating a northern culture in a northern land.
Alan Boraas is a professor of anthropology at the University of Alaska in Kenai.