Anchorage — For much of the last three months, UAA suffered its share of hockey hell and generated headlines the school will be none too eager to archive -- firing head coach Dave Shyiak, enduring a controversy about said coach, engaging in figurative scrums with the pucks community and momentarily stumbling through the prolonged search for a new head coach.
And that's not even counting the dismissal of athletic director Steve Cobb, a pending NCAA investigation into an unspecified Seawolves sport and an episode in which the University of Alaska's Board of Regents practically came down with the vapors over all that messy publicity. (Just FYI -- Shyiak has an attorney and Cobb said he was getting one, so their firings remain ongoing stories, and thus some regents might want to line up a fainting couch).
Finally, though, blessed relief arrived at UAA last Tuesday, when the school made some hockey news that placed it in an attractive light for a change. The hiring of Matt Thomas as head coach from the ECHL's Stockton Thunder was greeted with near-universal applause in these parts, and his impending arrival allows UAA hockey a fresh start and a launchpad, it is presumed, to better times.
Granted, the bar is limbo-low. UAA won a mere four of its 36 hockey games last season. Its fan base has all but vanished. And the Seawolves have long been seriously second-fiddle to the Alaska Aces.
If Thomas in his debut season can deliver a team that is fun to watch and wins, say, between one-third and one-half of its games, fans likely will slowly begin coming back. Nor should it hurt UAA that the revamped Western Collegiate Hockey Association, beginning next season, will no longer be the powerhouse circuit of the past. The Seawolves should be on more equal footing than any time in the last 20 years.
Thomas doesn't need us to pump his tires -- in nine campaigns as an ECHL bench boss, he produced nine winning seasons and this spring guided Stockton to its first Kelly Cup Finals -- but he was a strong choice by two combined search committees and vice chancellor Bill Spindle. We've seen Thomas' teams for years now, and those crews always played with urgency and passion, and they proved a tough opponent both when Thomas enjoyed the luxury of strong talent and when the talent on his bench was modest.
The talent level on the Seawolves is the latter -- they are not overburdened by skill. But they have pride -- you don't get to Division I hockey without being driven, and also without having some tools -- and they are surely capable of more than four victories. Part of Thomas' early work here will be to get the players to again believe in themselves and learn how to win. Countless were the times the last couple seasons when the Seawolves snatched losses or ties from potential victory.
Simply having a clean slate will be salve for the Seawolves, who badly needed a change. With a new coach, nothing is given and players must prove to the new guy that they are worthy of the ice time they covet. Thomas' proven ability to develop players should only help recruiting and, naturally -- this is an old rallying cry around UAA -- he must be able to lure at least some of the best Alaska players to his program.
Another immediate and important task for Thomas is hiring another assistant coach -- that's high on his to-do list. Thomas earlier this week said assistant coach T.J. Jindra will remain as the lone holdover from Shyiak's staff. That seems like the right move because it is Jindra who in these last three months has remained out of the limelight and on task, solo, taking care of the program by himself. That can't have been easy -- "It's been a little lonely'' in the office, Jindra said -- and he deserved reward for his professionalism.
Credit UAA too for giving Thomas a contract worthy of someone who is being asked to rebuild the school's flagship program -- five years, $150,000 annual salary and a slew of incentive bonuses.
Thomas has a ton of work ahead of him, but that's status quo in hockey's culture, where working exceptionally hard is a rule, not the exception.
Not to be a buzz-kill, but the sledding looks tough right off the hop for UAA next season. Its first four opponents -- national runner-up Quinnipiac, Air Force, Western Michigan and Denver -- last season all generated winning records and combined for a .627 winning percentage.
That's OK. Might as well start out with challenges.
If UAA is truly headed toward better times, those don't come easily.
Nothing much in hockey does.
This column is the opinion of Daily News reporter Doyle Woody. Find his blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.