Anchorage — Coach Matt Thomas exited the rink Thursday afternoon at Sullivan Arena while his Seawolves were conducting their end-of-practice shootout drill -- loser required to wear garish clothes to class next week -- and joked that, given his team's offensive struggles at times, this could take a while.
Matt Bailey scored and promptly slid his stick through his hand like a swordsman sheathing his weapon, and later he practically danced off the ice.
Goaltender Rob Gunderson all but bounded off the ice, laughing.
OK, granted, Gunderson seems like he's always in a good mood. Still, the vibe around the UAA hockey team is strongly upbeat these days.
With five victories overall, the Seawolves already own one more games than they managed last season. With two wins in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, they have already matched their total from last season. And with victories in all four of their home games entering Friday night's opener of a home conference series against Michigan Tech, they've already doubled their home-ice wins of a season ago.
Sure, there's a caveat -- UAA (5-4-1, 2-3-1 WCHA) no longer is being feasted upon by many of the most powerful programs in Division I.
College hockey's landscape has shifted dramatically in the last year, with one conference dying, the two new conferences introduced and the thoroughly revamped WCHA rendered weaker. A year ago, six WCHA teams were ranked in the U.S. College Hockey Online Top 20 Poll, and three were slotted among the top seven teams. This week, just two WCHA teams made the rankings, with Ferris State leading the way at No. 10.
So, UAA no longer gets fed a steady, not-easily-digestible diet of the Minnesotas and North Dakotas and Denvers and St. Cloud States of the college hockey world.
And, yes, we note that two of the Seawolves' victories, on home ice, came against Alabama-Huntsville, which faces an even bigger rebuilding project than UAA and is arguably the worst team UAA has faced in the last decade.
But it should also be noted that since UAA beat Quinnipiac in the season opener for both teams at UAA's Kendall Hockey Classic, all the Bobcats have done is reel off a 12-game unbeaten streak (11-0-1) and climb to No. 4 in the rankings. Quinnipiac's only blemish during its streak, that tie, came against defending national champion Yale. And since UAA beat Air Force on the second night of the Kendall, the Falcons have merely gone 7-1-0.
As difficult as it is to measure UAA's progress this season, given that the WCHA isn't what it used to be, there's no denying the Seawolves' dressing room is a much happier place these days. Near the end of last season, the players put on brave faces and said all the right things, yet seemed like 20-plus guys each carrying around an anchor. Their body language on the ice, once they got down a goal or two, signaled they expected the worst, which seems only human when most nights ended in a loss.
Hiring a new coach from the pro ranks was the first step in what those around the program hope will be a resurrection. Thomas has been every bit as eager to coach a new crew as the players have been to hear a new voice and a different philosophy. UAA's returners have seemed particularly motivated, thrilled with the chance to make a new start.
Not that it's all bar-down one-timers and hockey hugs for the Green and Gold. Most nights, even in a weaker WCHA, they will need to play close to their full potential to succeed. Some nights, even that won't be enough.
As always, they need more hands on deck when it comes to scoring. Bailey, a senior center, and Scott Allen, a junior winger, each have already pocketed seven goals in 10 games, which is great. That's more than half the team's goals -- 14 of 27 -- and that's not great, because they can't be expected to do the heavy lifting every night.
In a perfect world, the Seawolves would be getting at least a touch more scoring from their freshmen forwards -- they've only managed three goals in a combined 41 games. And the defense would chip in occasionally -- Austin Coldwell's goal is the only one furnished from the blue line and his six points nearly equals the production of the rest of the defense (eight assists).
Of course, the hockey world isn't any more perfect than the real world.
Still, many of the same tenets apply -- resolve to work hard, work smart and in collaboration, and you greatly enhance your chance to succeed. Attitude matters, and so far, the Seawolves' is upbeat.
This column is the opinion of Daily News reporter Doyle Woody. Find his blog at adn.com/hockeyblog.