New-look Seawolves ready to return to rink

The college hockey season spans five months, minimum, so this weekend's season-opening Kendall Hockey Classic represents nothing greater than the first milepost on a long journey.

No need to immediately begin the business of rushing to judgment on UAA, which opens with a new coach (Matt Thomas), a new marketing mantra ("It's a new day''), a new chance to regain lost fans (attendance has plunged) and a new seating arrangement at Sullivan Arena (so long to most of the balcony seats) -- really, all of it heralds a new era. And remember, UAA will soon ramp up in the revamped Western Collegiate Hockey Association.

Still, two Kendall wins will not mean the program is resurrected, any more than two losses will mean it's totally time to panic. And two ties? Got nothing on that -- we'll take suggestions.

Anyhow, this will be a work in progress.

That's a Bauer Total One hockey twig in Thomas' hands, not a magic wand.

Mostly, the Seawolves seem understandably amped to get going. A fresh season affords the opportunity to begin burying the past, namely last season's 4-25-7 slog that cost Dave Shyiak his job -- and, granted, burying that season requires a lot of dirt.

Senior goaltender Rob Gunderson, who Thomas said will get the season-opening start and thus the first crack at a job that is completely open to all three applicants on the roster, seemed so psyched after practice Thursday he was practically levitating outside his locker room.

"I am so excited,'' Gunderson said. "I can't get this grin off my face. I'm nervous too.''

There's pressure there for Gunderson. Thomas says all three of his goaltenders -- the others are senior Chris Kamal and freshman Mike Matyas, who shined in last week's exhibition -- will get a shot at delivering bona fides. Gunderson got the top marks in practices this week.

"I told them the best guy in practice this week would start, and in my mind, he's been the best guy on the ice,'' Thomas said.

Consider this weekend the first auditions for everyone on the roster. None of them have ever played a game for Thomas, so they begin with a clean slate under a coach who doesn't have an opinion of their merits, or demerits, based on the past. Clean slate too for Thomas, who comes from the pro game with a respected rink resume.

Thomas previously was bench boss for the Stockton Thunder of the ECHL, who played 95 games last season before falling in the Kelly Cup finals.

By contrast, UAA's regular season is just 34 games, which magnifies everything.

"You only get 120 minutes every weekend,'' Thomas said. "It puts a lot of eggs in one basket and you have to perform.

"Everything matters. Every play is highlighted. Every great play is celebrated. Every bad play is commiserated.''

Yet Thomas understands this weekend is only a snapshot, albeit an important one, in the big picture. The season is a process, he says, which sounds like coach-speak, or management-speak -- Alaska Aces coach Brent Thompson used the "process" rap about 7,323,411 times in 2010-11, when the Aces won the Kelly Cup -- but rings true.

So here the Seawolves are, at the start of something, ready for their first snapshot. What the big picture holds remains unclear, which is why they play the games and we watch.

This column is the opinion of Daily News reporter Doyle Woody. Find his blog at or call him at 257-4335.


Kendall Hockey Classic

The focus this season-opening weekend is on goaltenders. Two teams return clear No. 1 masked men in UAF sophomore John Keeney and Air Force senior Jason Torf. The other two teams, defending national runner-up Quinnipiac and UAA, are searching for a No. 1 — the Bobcats lost All-American and Hobey Baker Award finalist Eric Hartzell and the Seawolves are expected to have a three-man battle (seniors Rob Gunderson and Chris Kamal, and freshman Mike Matyas) for the top job.

UAA Seawolves

Last season: 4-25-7

Player to watch: Senior Rob Gunderson (No. 33) gets the first crack at the goaltending mantle with Friday’s start against Quinnipiac.

UAF Nanooks

Last season: 17-16-4

Player to watch: Sophomore John Keeney (No. 39) seized the spotlight as a rookie last season, going 13-11-4 with a 2.33 goals-against average and .909 save percentage.

Air Force Falcons

Last season: 17-13-7

Player to watch: Senior Jason Torf (No. 29) last season logged 98 percent of the minutes in goal, compiling a 17-13-7 record with a 2.36 goals-against average, .918 save percentage and two shutouts.

Quinnipiac Bobcats

Last season: 30-8-5

Player to watch: Expect sophomore Michael Garteig (No. 34), twice voted the British Columbia Hockey League’s top goaltender, to be granted the opportunity to shine.