New coach, fresh start for UAA hockey

AnchorageSeptember 16, 2013 

The Seawolves posed for their team picture before practice Monday afternoon, and a fresh snapshot of the hockey program entering its 35th season served as another reminder this is a club blessed with a fresh start.

Sure, it's a new season -- teams throughout the country are flirting with the optimism it heralds -- but the changes at UAA run much deeper than just the turning of the calendar.

There is a new head coach in Matt Thomas, plucked from the pro ranks. There is a new assistant coach in Josh Ciocco, a new volunteer coach in former Alaska Aces winger Barrett Heisten and a new goaltending coach in Steve Thompson -- both are Anchorage boys. There are seven newcomers on the roster. There is the old league that is the new league -- the restructured Western Collegiate Hockey Association. There are new locales on the travel schedule - hello, for instance, Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., and Huntsville, Ala. That's not even counting a new athletic director on the way.

"New track suits and everything,'' Thomas joked about his outfit as he took the ice for the team picture.

This will be a season in which UAA begins the difficult labor of resurrecting a program that has not notched a winning season in the last 20. It will also be a season in which the program can begin the work of recapturing its dwindling fan base.

The Seawolves aren't turning the page. They're opening a new book.

Even for the 19 returners - assistant coach T.J. Jindra also returns - everything feels fresh. A new bench boss means players have a new guy to impress. Past achievements or failures - this seems especially pertinent for a club that last season went just 4-25-7 in what Thomas called a "rough ride'' - are just that: The past.

"First off, it's a breath of fresh air for everybody who's been here,'' said senior goalie Rob Gunderson. "It's definitely a change, something new and different, and we can't get overwhelmed by it.''

The vibe Monday, when the Seawolves held a short on-ice practice, was more eager than anxious. Really, everyone is fighting for their spot in the lineup

"We are all freshman in that room right now,'' Gunderson said. "You've got to show your stuff. It's a clean slate.''

As a long-time ECHL coach -- Thomas' Stockton Thunder last spring eliminated the Alaska Aces and advanced to the Kelly Cup Finals - Thomas' teams were marked by tenacity. Expect these Seawolves to take on that trait.

"I think the energy is right where you want it to be,'' Thomas said. "It's almost like we're a naïve group. We think we're gonna win every game.''

He knows that will not be the case, but he also believes his team will not provide opponents any easy nights.

"Right now, we want to play aggressively, to learn how to compete,'' Thomas said.

Spearheading that ambition falls to the Seawolves' senior leadership. Thomas last week named center Matt Bailey and winger Brett Cameron as captains, center/wing Jordan Kwas and defenseman Quinn Sproule as assistant captains, and Gunderson and fellow goalie Chris Kamal as part of the leadership group he'll lean on.

"I didn't think it was a one-man job, and I didn't feel like I knew these guys well enough, so I figured we'd do a little bit of leadership by committee,'' Thomas said.

Chances are that whatever success the Seawolves can forge will also be by committee. They are not blessed with a 20-goal scorer, or a wonderfully skilled defenseman who can dictate the game on his shifts, or goaltending that can straight-up steal games with regularity.

Then again, it will be fascinating to see how Thomas employs his returners - will they have familiar roles or get enhanced opportunities? - and where he fits freshmen into the lineup. Likewise, it will not less interesting to see how the players progress under his watch.

Maybe there's more there than we knew. Or maybe Thomas' fresh set of eyes, and a fresh start for the Seawolves, can conjure something refreshing.

The Seawolves took a new team picture Monday. In six months, at season's end, we should have a clearer picture of just where the program is headed.

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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