After three losing seasons at UAA, Matt Bailey began his senior year intent on spearheading the turnaround of a moribund hockey program, and he promptly generated career highs in all scoring categories to help the Seawolves to their first winning season in more than two decades and playoff success.
"He came into this year like a man on a mission, and he delivered,'' said first-year UAA coach Matt Thomas. "He not only made us go, but he won games for us at both ends of the ice.''
The reward for Bailey and his teammates was victory on the road against rival UAF in a three-game, first-round Western Collegiate Hockey Association and a rare trip to the league's Final Five.
Now, Bailey has collected another rink reward.
Bailey, who turns 23 next week, has signed a two-year contract with the NHL's Anaheim Ducks that could be worth as much as $1.385 million.
The Ducks, who announced Bailey's signing Wednesday, assigned the free-agent center from Oakbank, Manitoba, on the outskirts of Winnipeg, to the Norfolk (Va.) Admirals of the American Hockey League. He will spend the remainder of the season with Norfolk on an amateur tryout agreement -- that basically covers his expenses -- before his Anaheim contract kicks in next fall.
"It's obviously really rewarding,'' Bailey said by cellphone Wednesday from Norfolk. "It's one step closer to achieving my dream, and any time you take that next step, you've got to be proud. I'm excited to see what the future brings me here in Norfolk.''
Anaheim has been keeping tabs on Bailey the last two seasons and scouted him extensively this season, when he led the Seawolves in scoring with 20-18--38 goals in 38 games and also topped them in plus-minus (plus-15). He was voted an All-WCHA first-teamer.
"He's a good-skating, hard-working, two-way guy, and at the end of the year, when games were on the line, he was really good,'' said David McNab, Anaheim's vice president of hockey operations.
McNab scouted Bailey last season, attended several UAA games this season and watched him in televised games. He said he liked Bailey's all-around game, and liked the 6-foot-1, 201-pounder even more after talking to him during the season.
"You can tell he wants to play, and really wants to be good and move on to the next level,'' McNab said.
Bailey said a couple of NHL teams expressed interest and he believed Anaheim the best fit.
"They showed a lot of interest in me throughout the whole year, and looking at the depth chart and talking to people, I thought this gave me the best opportunity to play with the big club,'' Bailey said.
As an undrafted 22-year-old, the NHL's Collective Bargaining Agreement permitted Bailey to sign for two years. He has what is known in the business as a two-way contract -- that is, he will receive one salary at the NHL level and a substantially lower salary in the AHL.
According to capgeek.com, and confirmed by college hockey sources, Bailey's contract pays him a $185,000 signing bonus -- he gets that no matter what level he plays at -- and an average NHL salary of $600,000 per season. At the AHL level, his deal pays him $70,000 per season.
Bailey on Tuesday flew from Anchorage to Norfolk. Wednesday, he underwent a physical and practiced with the Admirals, whose next game is Friday against visiting Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
The Ducks have a history with the Seawolves. McNab was instrumental in signing UAA goaltender Gregg Naumenko in 2000 after Naumenko's freshman season landed him on the All-WCHA first-team. He also signed forward Curtis Glencross in 2004 after his 21-goal sophomore season.
Naumenko played in only two NHL games in his seven pro seasons, but Glencross has become a 20-goal scorer in the NHL, where he has played more than 400 games and currently is in the third year of a four-year, $10.2 million deal with the Calgary Flames.
Six former Seawolves have played in the NHL -- Stanley Cup-winning winger Mike Peluso, Glencross, Naumenko, winger Rob Conn, the late Jeff Batters, a defenseman, and current Washington Capitals center Jay Beagle.
McNab said that if Bailey makes the NHL, he projects as a third-line center whose work ethic and attention to defensive detail will serve him sell.
Bailey is the second Alaska-connected center to sign an NHL deal this month. UAF's Cody Kunyk, the WCHA's Player of the Year, signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning last week.
Bailey said he was grateful to his parents, Doug and Maria, and to his former coaches, teammates and staff members.
Thomas said Bailey, one of his captains, deserved an NHL deal, and his success can only help the Seawolves.
"It's obviously, first and foremost, a great opportunity for him,'' Thomas said. "After that, it's a great reflection on the program. And it's what every player strives for, and it helps guys in our program to know it's obtainable.''
Thomas said Bailey's strong defensive play, in addition to his skill and fitness, makes him a well-rounded player.
"They say the mark of a great leader is to leave something in a better spot than you came into, and he did that not only as a senior but for four years,'' Thomas said. "He came in and made a positive difference for the program.''
Not only did Bailey as a senior double his previous career high for goals in a season with 20, but he killed penalties, logged heavy ice time and took critical face-offs. In the Seawolves' series finale against UAF, with UAA holding a 5-4 lead in the last minute and the Nanooks' goalie pulled for an extra attacker, Bailey won three pivotal draws. He also had a goal and assist in the game. In Game 2 of that best-of-3 series, when the Seawolves also faced elimination, Bailey scored UAA's first goal in a 2-1 win.
"He gave us everything -- both ways,'' Thomas said.
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
By DOYLE WOODY