UAA names 4 finalists for hockey coach position

Doyle Woody

The four finalists UAA unveiled Wednesday in its search for a new head hockey coach -- two finalists are currently employed in Division I programs and two work at the Division III level -- could be in town as soon as next week for detailed interviews with school officials and meet-and-greets with the public.

The finalists for the Division I job, which opened when Dave Shyiak was fired last month after eight seasons, are:

• Mike Corbett, 42, the associate head coach at Division I Air Force, where he has served on Frank Serratore's staff for the last 10 years. The Falcons have qualified for the NCAA tournament five times in the last seven seasons.

• Damon Whitten, 36, the former UAA assistant coach (2006-08, under Shyiak) who is an assistant at Division I Michigan Tech. Prior to joining the Huskies in 2010, Whitten was director of hockey operations at Michigan State, his alma mater.

• Chris Brown, 42, another former UAA assistant coach (1997-2000, under Dean Talafous) who is head coach at Division III Augsburg College in Minneapolis and has been a D-III bench boss at three Midwest schools. He is 144-146-23 (.497 winning percentage) in 12 seasons as a Division III head coach and three times has been named a conference Coach of the Year.

• And Gary Heenan, 39, head coach for the last 12 seasons at Division III Utica College (N.Y.), which this season advanced to the national semifinals before losing to eventual national champion Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Heenan, who owns a record of 165-119-29 (.573), this season was named ECAC West Coach of the Year for the second time and was a runner-up for Division III national coach of the year in balloting by the American Hockey Coaches Association.

Among those who did not make the cut as finalists were former UAA head coach John Hill, current Seawolves associate head coach Campbell Blair, and long-time Dimond High and youth coach Dennis Sorenson. All three confirmed they applied for the job. Hill and Sorenson played at UAA.

UAA's four-man search committee -- men's basketball coach Rusty Osborne, running coach Michael Friess, volleyball coach Chris Green and faculty representative Dr. Stephen Strom -- winnowed a field of 26 applicants to the four finalists, said UAA athletic director Steve Cobb. Cobb will have the final say in hiring Shyiak's replacement.

"There was a pretty clear break in our quantitative scoring between these four and the other applicants,'' Cobb said. "We're very pleased with the field.''

Cobb said UAA guidelines prohibit him speaking publicly about applicants who did not make the cut as finalists.

After the committee settled on four finalists, Cobb said, he and committee members interview all four finalists by telephone.

The finalists next will undergo further vetting -- "Crossing i's and dotting t's,'' Cobb said -- then likely be flown to Anchorage as early as next week to meet with athletic department staff, school officials, the players and the public. Cobb said it is likely, but not certain, all four finalists will visit Anchorage.

Any finalist who visits will meet the public in an informal setting to make his pitch and conduct a question-and-answer session with boosters, alumni and community members, Cobb said.

There are just 59 head coaching jobs in Division I men's college hockey, and each of UAA's finalists will likely have areas to address in order to get one of those positions that Corbett recently said are "sacred.''

Corbett, a former University of Denver assistant captain, head coach in the America West Hockey League and youth director of the Colorado Springs Amateur Hockey Association, will probably be asked about his ability to recruit in Western Canada, where a majority of Seawolves played their junior hockey.

Air Force's roster in the last five seasons has included anywhere from two to five players -- Americans, of course -- who went to the Academy from junior teams in Western Canada. But Western Canada is not a recruiting stronghold for the Falcons. Most of their players come out of the North American Hockey League and the U.S. Hockey League.

Whitten owns varied experience as an assistant coach and recruiter -- Michigan Tech recruits strongly in Western Canada -- but he does not have head coaching experience.

Brown's Division I experience as an assistant coach at UAA came more than a decade ago, and while he knows UAA and Anchorage, he likely will have to be convincing he can again recruit at the Division I level.

Heenan has recruited some players from Western Canada, but the majority of players on his Pioneers teams have been from the Eastern United States and Eastern Canada. He also likely will be asked about a misstep. He was hired as an assistant coach at Division I Union College in 2005, but resigned inside a week and returned to Utica after his comments in a newspaper interview rankled then-Union bench boss Nate Leaman.

Whoever gets the Seawolves job will be free to hire one assistant coach -- Blair's contract will not be renewed, Cobb has said. Cobb said assistant coach T.J. Jindra will have the option of remaining in his position.

The new coach will need to hit the ground running. UAA is coming off a 4-25-7 season in which it finished last in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association for the second straight season. In the last two seasons, the Seawolves went just 7-42-7 in league games.

Attendance for UAA home games has also plummeted, dropping to an average of just 2,729 this past season, which represented a decline of 30.2 percent in the last six seasons. That average attendance at Sullivan Arena is the lowest since the 1985-86 season.

Also, UAA's 20 consecutive losing seasons in the longest current streak of losing seasons in Division I hockey.

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