New UAA hockey coach sets lofty goal

Doyle Woody
Erik Hill

Matt Thomas touched down in Anchorage about 4 a.m. Monday, and inside his initial 34 hours here UAA's new hockey coach found new living digs, huddled with assistant coach T.J. Jindra to get up to speed on the program, moved closer to hiring another assistant and headlined a press conference he kicked off with his usual humor.

"My first duty as a coach is always to adjust the microphone a little lower,'' the 5-foot-7 Thomas cracked after an introduction by interim athletic director Tim McDiffett, who is at least a 6-footer.

After he lowered the mic, the erstwhile head coach of the ECHL's Stockon Thunder, and before that the league's Fresno Falcons and Atlantic City Boardwalk Bullies, emphasized that he sets lofty goals.

"The expectations for myself, my staff and the players in the program are going to be high,'' he said.

Thomas, 37, noted he has never endured a losing season in his nine campaigns as a head coach "and I don't plan on starting.''

That in itself is a bold goal, considering he is taking over a program that in 20 consecutive seasons has not even managed a .500 season -- the longest current stretch of losing seasons in Division I hockey. The Seawolves are coming off a 4-25-7 season in which they finished last in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association for the second straight year.

Given the debut of two new Division I leagues in the upcoming season, and the revamping of the WCHA into a group of schools that like UAA are primarily Division II in other sports, the WCHA is unlikely to be the power conference it has always been. Still, a winning season, no matter the competition, would be a remarkable turnaround.

"What we want to do is be a program that believes in itself,'' Thomas said.

Part of what McDiffett called "turning the page'' for the program will entail hiring another assistant coach to round out the staff with Thomas and Jindra. Thomas said he has narrowed his list -- "Lot of very good candidates,'' he said -- and hopes to made a decision within the new few days.

Thomas said he has met a couple of returning local players, and former Seawolves winger Josh Lunden, who now plays in the American Hockey League and is visiting Anchorage, stopped by Thomas' office Tuesday and attended the press conference. They know each other from their days as opponents in the ECHL.

Jindra's recruiting recently led to a commitment for next season from defenseman Chase Van Allen of Anchorage. Thomas said that given the number of returning players and incoming recruits, he's comfortable with his roster and is unlikely to add to it for the upcoming season. Any addition would likely be a walk-on.

Thomas said improving significantly over last season with largely the same players will entail more than sheer sweat. As McDiffett pointed out, one of Thomas' selling points in applying for the job, which became available when Dave Shyiak was fired after eight seasons, is his track record of developing players.

"Everybody works hard,'' Thomas said. "Working hard isn't enough. You have to work smart.''

Thomas said his wife, Andrea, and their two young sons, Devlin and Gavin, will move to Anchorage in about a month.

"I want our family to really dig in our heels and be a part of the community,'' he said.


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