UAA hockey: A new hope

CommentSeptember 24, 2012 

Jordan Kwas hits the ice while being defended by UAA head coach Dave Shyiak during drills on the first official day of hockey practice Monday at the Wells Fargo Sports Complex. More photos at adn.com/sports.

ERIK HILL / ANCHORAGE DAILY NEWS Buy Photo

They waited more than six months for this day, and it couldn't get here soon enough. Finally, the Seawolves could expunge the gloomy memories of last season, which began with promise but quickly unraveled into a slice of hockey hell, and set about making new memories, ones worth recalling.

Monday brought the first day of official practice at UAA, and with it, a clean slate.

Last season is history. This season is hope.

That's the way it works in late September each fall. Players and coaches finally get back on the ice together, start working and grinding and striving. They get an empty canvas on which to paint their ambitions and dreams.

The returners get reacquainted, the news guys find their niche in a new dressing room and lineup, and individuals glue themselves into a group. The captain's practices and the team-building exercises that preceded Monday started that process. Monday, everything got real. An exhibition game is less than two weeks away, the true start to the season not even three weeks distant.

"It's a fun time of the year,'' said UAA coach Dave Shyiak.

It looked that way at the Wells Fargo Sports Complex, where Shyiak and his staff put the Seawolves -- a balance of six seniors, six juniors, six sophomores and eight freshmen -- through a couple hours of drills and conditioning. Smiles seemed contagious. Energy was abundant. Hopes were high.

"All the new faces, we've come together real tight already,'' said junior winger Brett Cameron. "Tighter than last year's team, probably tighter than two years ago. Everyone is excited to play for one another.''

As the Seawolves enter the final season in which the Western Collegiate Hockey Association remains a power conference -- UAA will be part of a seriously watered-down WCHA in 2013-14, when the circuit's big hitters join new conferences -- not much will be expected of them.

That's because they finished last in the 12-team league by a wide margin last season, when they won their tournament and UAF's tournament to open the campaign, then hit the skids. The Seawolves went just 3-15-0 in the second half of the season.

"We were at such a high -- winning back-to-back tournaments to start the season -- maybe too high,'' Cameron said. "I've always heard it, "Stay even-keeled, don't have peaks and valleys.' Maybe we thought too much of ourselves. We've got to stay out of the peaks and out of the valleys.''

Player departures and graduated players cost UAA 51 percent of its goal scoring from last season. And it returns just one double-digit goal scorer in junior center Matt Bailey, who bagged 10 goals for the second straight season. No one outside of the Seawolves' dressing room will expect much of them.

Still, preseason is a time of optimism, and here's what the Seawolves have to be optimistic about: There are plenty of roles to fill on this club, so no one will lack for opportunity.

Covet a spot on the top two lines or one of the power-play units? Play your way into position.

Know that conventional wisdom pegs you to finish in the basement? Prove otherwise.

Understand your fan base is dwindling? Give folks a reason to show up regularly at Sullivan Arena.

Remember, two years ago, the Seawolves tied for eighth in the WCHA -- coaches predicted them to finish 11th -- and swept at Minnesota in the first round of the playoffs.

"There are 12 guys who know what it takes to get to that spot,'' said Cameron, referencing his team's seniors and juniors. "We can show the sophomores and freshmen how to get there.''

The journey has begun.

"A lot of teaching, lot of conditioning, seeing who can play with who, just getting a feel for who can do what,'' Shyiak said.

The season will be here, pronto.

"I get goose bumps just thinking about it,'' Cameron said. "I'm stoked to play a game.''

This column is the opinion of Daily News reporter Doyle Woody. Find his blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.

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