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Prospective UAA hockey coach cites work with legends

Doyle Woody
Bob Hallinen

Whether recruiting, playing games or engaging the community, UAA coaching candidate Damon Whitten said Seawolves staff and players would deliver one speed on his watch: Top end.

The former UAA assistant coach and current Michigan Tech assistant, one of four finalists to become the fifth bench boss in Seawolves history, said at a public forum Wednesday night he would employ an style predicated on speed, puck possession and taking the game to the opponent.

"We're going to dictate the pace of the game, the tempo,'' Whitten said.

That's what Michigan Tech has done in the last two seasons under coach Mel Pearson, who took over in Houghton in 2011 following a Huskies spiral that included three consecutive last-place finishes in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. Michigan Tech finished eighth in the 12-team league Pearson's first season and 10th this past season.

Whitten, 36, said he's gleaned valuable lessons and knowledge from some of college hockey's greatest coaches. He played at Michigan State for legendary coach Ron Mason, was on the Wayne State staff of Bill Wilkinson, worked as director of hockey operations at Michigan State under coach Rick Comley and currently works under Pearson, who for was Red Berenson's right-hand man at Michigan. Mason, Comley and Berenson all have NCAA championships on their resumes.

"It's an unbelievable coaching tree,'' Whitten said.

The UAA job opened last month when the school fired Dave Shyiak after eight seasons, the last two of which included last-place WCHA finishes. Whitten spent two seasons on Shyiak's staff -- he was here from 2006-08. He and his wife, Angie, returned to the Lower 48 when Whitten's father became seriously ill and Comley offered him a job at his alma mater.

Whitten said people often ask him about his time in Alaska and he answers with rave reviews.

"The last thing we always say is, 'We left too early, we didn't have enough time here,'' said Whitten, adding he has unfinished business at UAA.

Whitten, who said he just got off the road from driving 1,800 miles on a recruiting trip throughout the Midwest-based U.S. Hockey League, the country's top junior circuit and a pipeline of talent for colleges, said he and his staff would be tireless recruiters.

Michigan Tech's recruiting has dramatically improved its talent level in the last couple seasons and that has allowed the Huskies to employ a more offensive style. Whitten said if he's the next man in charge of the Seawolves, he and his staff would go hard after top-end talent. Getting Alaska talent is a priority too, he said, and one way to aid that aim is to develop relationships with local youth coaches, many of which are former Seawolves.

"We have to recruit talented players,'' Whitten said. "If you want to be a great coach, recruit talented players. We might not land them all, but we're going to be out there.''

Between his experience as either a graduate assistant coach or assistant coach at four schools -- Michigan State as a grad assistant, and Wayne State, UAA and Michigan Tech as an assistant -- and his two-season stint as director of hockey operations at Michigan State, Whitten said he feels prepared to become a head coach for the first time. As director of hockey ops for the Spartans, he was in charge of video breakdowns, on-campus recruiting visits and the budget.

And at a time when there is a rift between UAA and its hockey alumni, and between the school and the hockey community, a handout that encompassed Whitten's philosophies emphasized the need to engage the alumni and community: "We need to establish a solid foundation of support -- I will speak to anyone, anywhere, anytime.''

Whitten was the second finalist to visit town, following the appearance of Air Force associate coach Mike Corbett on Monday.

Next up, on Monday night, is former UAA assistant coach Chris Brown, head coach at Division III Augsburg College in Minneapolis. The last finalist to appear, on Wednesday night, will be Division III Utica College (N.Y.) head coach Gary Heenan.


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