All UAA coach candidate has done behind bench is win

Doyle Woody

Matt Thomas' record doubles as the greatest strength on his rink resume -- all he has done as a professional hockey head coach is win.

As a bench boss for nine seasons in the ECHL, he has produced nine winning seasons, and this spring he guided the Stockton Thunder -- locals may remember them as the crew that eliminated the Alaska Aces from the postseason -- to the franchise's first appearance in the Kelly Cup Finals.

Now Thomas, whose roots are in college hockey, wants to become the fifth head coach in UAA history, and Thursday night he delivered his pitch in a public forum.

"My foundation is about winning,'' he said. "Every program I've been involved with has won.''

That run extends back to his college days at RIT, when it was a Division III power; to his first coaching gig at Maine, where the Black Bears where Division I runners-up in 2002; to Atlantic City, which won the 2003 Kelly Cup with Thomas as an assistant; and to a combined nine winning ECHL seasons as a head coach for the Atlantic City Boardwalk Bullies, Fresno Falcons and Stockton.

Thomas' 2006 team in Fresno came within a goal of reaching the Kelly Cup Finals. Aces winger Chris Minard's strike in double overtime of Game 7 in the conference finals snuffed the Falcons and helped propel Alaska to its first championship -- a "65-footer'' Thomas mused Thursday night, and he wasn't far off the mark.

At Fresno and Stockton, Thomas' teams have often been widely considered difficult to play against and possessed of determination. That was especially true in the recent postseason, when the Thunder time and again came from behind to seize victory. Their elimination of the Aces came in Game 6 in the Western Conference semifinals at Sullivan Arena, where the Thunder tied the game with an extra-attacker goal in the waning seconds of regulation before winning in OT.

"There was a certain belief within the group we could beat anyone on any night,'' Thomas said.

Thomas, a Toronto native, said his strength is taking good players and helping them grow their game. He stressed that he aims to recruit players who are good people -- getting some of Alaska's elite young players onboard is key, Thomas said -- and use that quality in players as a springboard in their development.

As an ECHL head coach without an assistant coach, Thomas learned to recruit and build a roster, scout opponents, prepare game plans, run practices and make myriad decisions on the fly during games.

As an assistant at Maine, he was guided by Grant Standbrook, a premier recruiter. At Stockton, Thomas has shown the ability to make key, late-season additions to his lineup.

This spring, for instance, he added forward Andrew Clark to the lineup late in the regular season after Clark finished playing at Acadia College, a Canadian school. All Clark managed in playing 22 postseason games for the Thunder was to post 7-14--21 totals that placed him second on Stockton in playoff scoring and tied for fourth among all playoff scorers. Defensemen Nik Pokulok and Daniel Gibb were also late additions from the amateur ranks and played all 23 playoff games for the Thunder -- Poluluk authored the series-winning goal against the Aces.

Thomas said he has always wanted to return to college and believes he can transform a UAA program that suffered eight straight losing seasons under previous coach Dave Shyiak and also repair the program's "disconnect'' with the hockey community.

"I want the opportunity to realize my goals and my dreams, and my goal has always been to be a college head coach,'' Thomas said.

He is one of six finalists for the job, and the only one of those with pro coaching experience.

UAA of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association is one of just of two teams among 59 Division I teams that is without a head coach -- fellow WCHA member Alabama-Huntsville is the other.

Two search committees formed by UAA will deliver a recommendation soon to Bill Spindle, UAA's vice chancellor for administrative services, and the school hopes to announce its new coach as early as next week.


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