The man who helped end the Alaska Aces hockey season last month is coming back to Anchorage next week to interview for the UAA coaching job -- a direct result of the university's decision to halt its search for a new coach in order to expand the search committee and job criteria.
The new criteria opened the door for Stockton Thunder coach Matt Thomas, one of six coaching finalists announced Monday by the university.
Thomas, whose team beat the Aces in the playoffs last month and more recently lost the ECHL Kelly Cup Finals to the Reading Royals, said he didn't apply for the job the first time it was posted.
"I only have three years of collegiate hockey experience, so I didn't fall into the criteria," he said in a phone interview Monday.
Four of the six finalists emerged from the search's second go-round. All six will come to Anchorage for interviews and public forums this week and next.
Two will make return trips after being named finalists in the early going of UAA's search to replace Dave Shyiak, who was fired two months ago following eight losing seasons:
• Michael Corbett, an assistant coach at Air Force for 10 years who last season was the associate head coach for the Central Collegiate Hockey Association team;
• Chris Brown, a former UAA assistant who is the head coach at Division III Augsburg College in Minnesota.
The other four finalists are products of the second search. In addition to Thomas, that group includes:
• Kevin Hartzell, the former head coach of two U.S. Hockey League teams, most recently the Sioux City Stampede;
• Dave Peters, an assistant coach at Dartmouth College of the Eastern College Athletic Conference since 1999;
• Ron Fogarty, program founder and head coach since 2006 at Division III Adrian College in Michigan.
Meanwhile, two coaches who were among the original four finalists don't want the job anymore -- Gary Heenan, head coach at Utica College, and Damon Whitten, a former UAA assistant. Both withdrew after UAA Chancellor Tom Case halted the original search a month ago.
Heenan said in an interview Monday the hiring process was taking too long.
"It wasn't fair to my team and my family," he said.
Thomas, 37, said he wants the job because he's eager to return to college hockey after more than a decade in the ECHL. Before joining Stockton in 2008, Thomas coached Fresno (2005-08) and Atlantic City (2002-05).
"I have a desire to coach college hockey, a strong desire," he said. "Anchorage is a great hockey community and that excites me, and I like a challenge. They're looking for a shift in the leadership of the program, and for me that's something that just gets me excited. I just think there's an opportunity to go up there and really be part of something special."
Like Thomas, Hartzell benefitted from the expanded job criteria. He doesn't come with much college coaching experience, but he logged two successful stints as a head coach in the USHL, the top junior league in the nation. Hartzell, who was with the Sioux City Stampede from 2005-12 and the St. Paul Vulcans from 1983-89, racked up more than 400 wins and two league championships while in the USHL.
Peters was the top assistant and recruiter at Providence from 1993-98 before joining Dartmouth. He has helped Dartmouth to an NCAA Division I top-20 ranking in nine of the last 11 seasons.
Fogarty spent 10 seasons as a Division I assistant at Bowling Green, Clarkson and Colgate. Since establishing the team at Adrian College, he owns a 145-20-6 record.
UAA has been without a hockey coach since March 29, when Shyiak was fired after eight straight losing seasons and an 80-177-33 record.
Events since then have rattled Seawolves athletics to its very core, resulting in last week's firing of longtime athletic director Steve Cobb and this week's appearance in front of the university's Board of Regents for UAA Chancellor Tom Case, who has been asked for a report on UAA athletics.
Heenan said that turmoil figured less into his decision to withdraw than the time it's taking for UAA to choose a new coach.
"Personally I enjoyed my time with Dr. Cobb and had a really good experience while I was up there," he said.
Reach Beth Bragg at email@example.com or 257-4335.
By BETH BRAGG