Forty-six times in the past eight hockey seasons, Matt Thomas has worked behind the visiting bench at Sullivan Arena. Come Oct. 11, he'll make his debut behind the home side's bench.
Thomas, who this spring guided the minor league Stockton (Calif.) Thunder to its first national championship appearance in a run that included eliminating the Alaska Aces, was named the fifth head coach in UAA history on Tuesday.
Thomas, 37, inherits a program that endured eight straight losing seasons under Dave Shyiak, who was fired on March 29. UAA has posted a losing record in 20 consecutive seasons, the longest active streak in Division I hockey.
Thomas said he is thrilled to return to college hockey. He played as an undersized forward at Division III Rochester Institute of Technology (N.Y.) in the late 1990s, when the sport at all levels still valued big bodies above all. He began his coaching career at RIT and the University of Maine. Getting back in the college ranks has always been his goal, Thomas said.
"It's just the right time, the right opportunity,'' he said in a telephone interview. "Obviously, there are challenges, for sure, with the program, but I love a big challenge.
"I feel like my whole hockey career, as a player trying to prove myself, and prove to people I could play - 'You're too small,' I always heard - that I've always had a chip on my shoulder.''
UAA recorded four wins, 25 losses and seven ties last season, when it finished last in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. It will open its 2013-14 season on Oct. 11 when it entertains Quinnipiac in the Kendall Hockey Classic at Sullivan.
The hiring of Thomas closes a tumultuous, prolonged search for a new coach. The search at one point was halted, a secondary search committee appointed and the job criteria tweaked - that last change allowed Thomas to meet the qualifications necessary to apply - before the search was reopened and a field of six finalists named.
UAA Vice Chancellor Bill Spindle, who directed the search, said the school's flagship program nabbed a terrific coach and leader in Thomas, who posted winning records in all nine of his seasons as an ECHL head coach for three different franchises. With a 342-225-80 record, Thomas is the fifth-winningest coach in the 25-season history of the ECHL, a developmental league two notches below the NHL on pro hockey's ladder.
Thomas is the first coach in UAA hockey history whose previous experience came largely in the pro game.
"What we saw in Matt Thomas was a guy who has tremendous enthusiasm and tremendous experience as a head coach,'' Spindle said. "In the pros, you're constantly dealing with change and guys moving up to the next level, yet he was always able to build a good team with whatever he had.''
Spindle said he immediately sensed that Thomas was a top candidate.
"I was impressed with his passion, and his attention to character in student-athletes, which is always No. 1,'' Spindle said.
Thomas and Spindle said they have agreed in principle to a five-year contract that will pay Thomas $150,000 annually and includes bonus clauses. That makes Thomas, who joins the payroll July 1, the highest-paid employee in Seawolves athletic history.
Thomas takes over at UAA as the Seawolves enter the new era of the WCHA. The longtime powerhouse conference has lost some of its luster because the majority of its stalwarts abandoned it to join two new leagues that debut this fall. The revamped WCHA, which includes University of Alaska Fairbanks, features schools similar to UAA - Division II athletic programs that play hockey in Division I.
Thomas must also repair rifts with both UAA hockey alumni and the wider hockey community, both of which have voiced their alienation from the program. Injecting himself in the community could also allow Thomas to begin turning around the flagship team's attendance - UAA's average of just 2,729 fans per home game last season was its lowest since 1983-84, its first season in Sullivan.
In getting the Seawolves job less than four months before the season opens, and after the program was without a leader for 81 days, Thomas faces a to-do list lengthier than his 5 feet, 7 inches.
Thomas said one of his first tasks - beyond returning "the 500 phone calls I've received today'' - is contacting returning Seawolf players and incoming freshmen to begin building relationships.
He also must assemble his staff, which includes two assistant coaches.
"A turnaround for UAA hockey - that's the goal,'' Thomas said. "In the new-look WCHA, we want to be a team to be reckoned with, and they'll be the first guys to do it.''
Thomas quickly turned around Stockton when he took over there in midseason of 2008-09, after the Fresno Falcons team he coached folded. Stockton was 10-17-3 when he arrived and went 22-16-4 the rest of the way to qualify for the playoffs.
Thomas answers to the nickname "Tito'' around the rink - it's a long story. In ECHL stops in Atlantic City, Fresno and Stockton, he earned a reputation for building relentlessly tenacious teams.
"I don't know how to put my finger on how a guy gets his team to work harder than the other team, but that's something Matty's been able to do,'' said Aces Coach Rob Murray.
Murray, who has coached against Thomas for two seasons and faced him in the playoffs both seasons - the Aces won in 2012, the Thunder prevailed in 2013 - said Thomas teams were always systemically sound.
"They do a good job of whatever system he wants them to play," Murray said, "and they're well-schooled in it. That means the players are well-educated in what he wants them to do, and they're well-practiced in it.''
Thomas said he can't make any promises about exactly how UAA will fare in his first season, but vows playing the Seawolves won't be a cruise for any opponent.
"I hope to let the rest of the conference and the college hockey world know it's going to be tough to beat us on any night,'' Thomas said.
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
By DOYLE WOODY