The real 'Mystery, Alaska': Who's calling the shots at UAA?

In the 1999 film "Mystery, Alaska," a small log cabin functions as the local hockey team's locker room. The players warm themselves around a crackling woodstove while they drink beer and gear up for their games, which are played outside. Of course this is Hollywood's goofy version of Alaska, so any comparisons between such nonsense and how we really play hockey in Alaska would be equally nonsensical. Real hockey in Alaska isn't quite as popular as the movie suggests, but Alaska hockey is as modern and competitive as the game gets. OK, maybe it's not that competitive given UAA hockey's recent performances, but definitely modern -- we certainly don't dry our skates with potatoes wrapped in tinfoil, heated on the woodstove.

Regardless of on-ice success -- or lack thereof -- Alaskans definitely take their hockey very seriously, and this is reflected by the upcoming $9.2 million renovations to the Wells Fargo Sports Complex. These renovations and upgrades are state of the art, and the jockeying for space and resources has gotten as rough as any hockey game. Tanaina, UAA's on-campus child learning center that has immensely benefited UAA for over 35 years -- and was part of the original renovation plan that the UA Board of Regents approved in December 2014 -- has taken a ridiculously serious hit and, by January 2015, is all of a sudden out of the game. Several other university programs that have been planning for years to be included in the renovation have also been suddenly penalized and sidelined without explanation.

And out of all of the ruckus surrounding oil prices falling, "billion-dollar deficits," budget cuts and program prioritization, it seems the last man standing is hockey itself. Even the UAA administration has acknowledged that a significant part of this remodel -- the remodel that is still going to move forward despite budget cuts and the state financial crisis -- is the originally planned super expensive and sprawling hockey program renovations, which includes a "hockey team locker room" upgrade.

Although hockey will not necessarily take over Tanaina's current space, it is still quite illogical that the most expensive and space-taking part of the renovation is still moving forward, but the originally planned and Board of Regents-approved Tanaina renovation -- perhaps the cheapest and least space-occupying part of the renovation -- took a high stick to the face, lost some teeth, and has been mysteriously slashed. This, again, exposes holes to the nonsensical reasons provided by UAA administration that Tanaina's eviction is a money-saving and space issue.

So the real "mystery" in Alaska, or at least at UAA right now, is who is calling the shots in this power play? How does the UAA hockey program's ranking in the fourth quintile of all UAA programs, not to mention an average of 11 wins out of 38 games per season, suddenly rise to the top of prioritization and "be given every opportunity to succeed" over the other programs being cut? Is hockey one of those "entitlements" President Patrick Gamble was talking about at the recent Board of Regents meeting this past February? These decisions definitely do not look like they were "performance-based." How do we slash a needed, successful, effective, vital, beneficial and "carrying its own weight" program like our school's only child care service, while forging ahead with plans to build the world's most kick-ass hockey locker room?

Let us ask that again to you -- the Alaska public, Chancellor Tom Case and his cabinet, UA President Gamble, the Board of Regents and Gov. Bill Walker: How in this current fiscal climate can UAA even think of building the world's most kick-ass hockey locker room? Maybe that isn't quite fair, as we haven't been in all the hockey locker rooms on the planet, but we've been in a few, and none of them were as quaint as the one in "Mystery, Alaska," or as awesome as the one currently proposed by UAA. The approved renovations might not have a little pot-bellied woodstove to heat the potatoes for drying the skates like the movie, but the "upgrade" does come decked out with a 60-inch flat-screen television, whirlpools, computer kiosks, granite bar tops, kitchen and, last but not least, a really nice built-in fireplace.

If "given every opportunity to succeed" could only apply to education and learning, to kids, students and hard-working staff and faculty, and not just sporting programs. If only "given every opportunity to succeed" is afforded to programs and services that have shown a long track record of success and effectiveness. If only "given every opportunity to succeed" could also apply to programs, departments and services that contribute to the greater good. The "mystery" for Alaska -- or for UAA -- is why it doesn't.


E. J. R. David and Don Rearden are both associate professors at UAA. They say they totally understand the need to warm up around a fire after a tough game of hockey, but when their children or their students get checked from behind, they tend to get a bit emotional.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

Don Rearden

Don Rearden, author of the novel "The Raven's Gift," lives and writes in Anchorage, but often pretends he's still back somewhere on the tundra outside of Bethel.