UAA fires hockey coach Shyiak after 4-25-7 season

Doyle Woody
Erik Hill

When UAA hockey players assembled in their locker room at the Wells Fargo Sports Complex for a scheduled team meeting Friday afternoon, there was no hint anything out of the ordinary loomed.

Then coach Dave Shyiak told the Seawolves he was no longer their coach.

"He came in and told us, straight-up, 'Guys, I'm terminated as of today,' '' said junior goaltender Rob Gunderson. "We were shocked. He told us it was awesome to be here, he experienced so much and all he wants for us is success.

"I was really proud of that. It was really genuine.''

UAA fired Shyiak, 46, after eight losing seasons, the last two plagued by last-place finishes in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association and continued plummeting attendance.

The school announced the move in a cryptic two-sentence press release: "Head hockey coach Dave Shyiak will not be returning to the University of Alaska Anchorage for the 2013-14 season, UAA athletic director Dr. Steve Cobb announced Friday.

"A search committee has been appointed and a national search for UAA's next hockey coach will begin immediately.''

Cobb declined to say whether Shyiak, whose $128,750 salary made him the athletic department's highest-paid employee, had resigned or been fired. Cobb said Shyiak had three years left on a five-year contract, but would not say whether Shyiak will receive a buyout or severance package.

"That's unresolved at this point,'' Cobb said.

Shyiak did not return a message left on his cellphone.

Cobb said seventh-year associate head coach Campbell Blair's contact will be honored through this school year and second-year assistant coach T.J. Jindra was told he can remain in his job.

UAA will honor commitments to the six recruits, all forwards, who are scheduled to join the Seawolves in the fall, Cobb said.

Cobb said UAA began advertising its job opening Friday and would keep it posted for at least two weeks. A new hire is likely a month or more away, he said.

The Seawolves are coming off a 4-25-7 season -- that .208 winning percentage was the same as in Shyiak's first season -- and for the second straight year finished in the league basement by seven points. UAA went just 1-20-3 in its last 24 games.

This season's team endured a 14-game winless streak in mid-season and a nine-game losing streak to close the season. Those last nine losses included losing the Governor's Cup to UAF for the fourth straight season and being swept from the league playoffs for the sixth time on Shyiak's watch.

"We haven't experienced the type of success that has been our goal,'' Cobb said. "In the totality of things, when it's time to make a change, you kind of know.''

Cobb said UAA announced the move Friday out of respect for five departing seniors, who like their teammates attended the Seawolves' annual awards banquet at a downtown hotel Thursday night.

"I wanted our senior class to get an end to their season without distraction, and this is a distraction,'' Cobb said.

Attendance for home games at Sullivan Arena also dropped precipitously in Shyiak's tenure. From its high point in his time as bench boss, an average of 3,910 per game in his second season, to this season, when UAA averaged just 2,729 per game, attendance fell 30.2 percent.

There are just 59 Division I programs in college hockey, so any head coaching vacancy generates interest, though a lower-level program like UAA usually attracts Division I assistant coaches and junior coaches looking to move up hockey's ladder.

The high point of Shyiak's time guiding the school's flagship athletic program came in the 2010-11 season, when the Seawolves engineered a strong second half. They swept a first-round playoff series at perennial power Minnesota and qualified for the WCHA's Final Five for just the second time since the school became eligible for it in 1993.

That 16-18-3 season appeared to herald a turnaround for a program that, under four different head coaches, has suffered 20 consecutive losing seasons, the most among active Division I teams. The 16 wins were the most by the Seawolves since 1992-93, and UAA's 12-14-2 league record marked the second-highest winning percentage (.464) in WCHA regular-season games in its league history.

Yet UAA immediately backslid, going just 9-25-2 in 2011-12 and declining even more this season, when the Seawolves were among the nation's worst teams in offense, defense, goaltending and penalty killing.

Overall, Shyiak went 80-177-33 (.333) in eight seasons. His teams' .290 winning percentage in WCHA regular-season games (52-146-26) was the lowest by any league member in that span. His teams five times finished last in the WCHA and two times finished next to last.

The Seawolves have also been unable to attract top Alaskans, which proved difficult even before Shyiak's hiring in 2005. Of the dozen or so top Alaskans in Division I, none play for UAA. And Anchorage's Lane Bauer, a high-school junior who is arguably the state's top prep prospect, already has verbally committed to rival UAF.

UAA is also the rare college hockey program that does not offer a summer youth camp. Hockey camps generate supplemental income for the coaching staff, provide a presence in the community and also serve as a recruiting tool -- coaches get to know and instruct top players in their community.

UAA quickly hired Shyiak after coach John Hill, a Bartlett High graduate who once captained the Seawolves and began his coaching career as an assistant under program founder Brush Christiansen, resigned in 2005. Hill quit after four seasons, citing a lack of institutional support.

Shyiak had been runner-up when Hill was hired in 2001 to replace Dean Talafous, who was fired after five seasons.

Shyiak won a national championship as a senior at Northern Michigan in 1991 -- his Wildcats eliminated the Seawolves in the NCAA tournament -- and began his coaching career at his alma mater. He was associate head coach at Northern Michigan when UAA hired him.

Cobb gave Shyiak a four-year contract extension in 2008, just as the coach was preparing to start the fourth and final season of his initial contract. Though UAA to that point had racked three straight last-place WCHA finishes under Shyiak, Cobb said he believed the program was poised for improvement.

And the Seawolves did deliver notable improvement that season, doubling their wins from the previous campaign and seizing the Governor's Cup for the second straight season. That was also the last time UAA won the Cup.

UAA's first-round WCHA playoff sweep of Minnesota in 2011 rolled over Shyiak's contract and extended it through the 2015-16 season.

UAA next season will play in a revamped, and much weakened WCHA, as a result of massive changes in college hockey's landscape. The shake-up of the WCHA is the fallout from the arrival of the Big Ten Conference and National Collegiate Hockey Conference, both of which debut in the fall and include many of the traditional powers that long burnished the WCHA's power and prestige.

The WCHA qualified six teams, double any of the other four conferences, for the 16-team NCAA tournament, which opened Friday. But just one of those teams, Minnesota State-Mankato, will remain in the league next season.

Still, even a reconstituted WCHA that includes more schools like UAA -- primarily Division II, with generally the exception of hockey -- is no guarantee the Seawolves will immediately grasp that elusive winning season. Against teams UAA played in Shyiak's tenure that will be members in the revamped WCHA, the Seawolves went 28-40-14 (.427).

Gunderson, the junior goalie, said Friday's announcement showed "it's a business in the end -- you always have to remember that'' -- but that he appreciated that Shyiak gave him a chance to continue his hockey career and gain a college education.

"He's a great guy, a good coach and a good family man, and he gave us all the opportunity to play college hockey, and that's huge,'' Gunderson said. "But sometimes you do need a change, and even coach said change can be good.

"It was shocking, but that stuff does happen in the end, and you have to find a way to deal with it. It's tough.''

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