EDITORIAL: For UAA and Anchorage, a new lease on life as a hockey town

When the puck drops at the University of Alaska Anchorage Seawolves’ first hockey game since early 2020, it will mark the fulfillment of a years-long journey for the team — one which saw the squad cut altogether, then saved through a herculean show of support from hockey supporters across Alaska and beyond. Those years saw a pandemic-canceled season and another lost to the attrition of the program’s collapse and rebuilding, followed by a slow and painstaking reassembly of talent that could build UAA into a contender.

As the Seawolves’ hockey saga enters its next chapter, the task for local hockey fans is simple by comparisons: Show up for the team.

Ignominy, death and rebirth

The UAA hockey program received its death notice in September 2020, a victim of drastic funding cuts from Gov. Mike Dunleavy. Hockey wasn’t alone — in addition to a host of academic programs, the school’s gymnastics and alpine skiing programs also got the ax. But there was one hope for reinstatement: If boosters could raise the program’s annual budget outside of university funding, the university’s Board of Regents would entertain adding them back.

Both gymnastics and alpine skiing managed to do so, a credit to their supporters. But the financial requirement for hockey was twice as much as the other two sports combined, and it was an open question whether a community that hadn’t supported the team strongly for at least a decade before the budget ax fell would rally to their cause. Even before the team was cut altogether, UAA had moved games to the small arena at the Seawolf Sports Complex on campus as a cost-saving measure; paying to host games at the mostly empty Sullivan Arena couldn’t be justified. The team hadn’t prevailed in the intrastate Governor’s Cup series against the rival Nanooks of Fairbanks since 2009.

But the death of the program was a wake-up call to the greater hockey community, both in Anchorage and statewide. Alaska prides itself as a hockey state and Anchorage has a proud tradition as a hockey town — but all of a sudden, there was no team to support that status. No more Aces. No more Seawolves. The pipeline from Anchorage youth hockey to the pros that once launched Scotty Gomez on his way to the Stanley Cup was broken — some feared irreparably.

What followed was an incredible fundraising effort that stretched from youth hockey teams all the way to the Seattle Kraken, ultimately successful in its goal of securing $3 million in just under a year to resurrect UAA hockey.


The long road back

Reaching the fundraising goal was only the first step back to life for the program. Former head coach Matt Curley departed to coach in the U.S. Hockey League while UAA’s hockey future was in doubt, as had many of the team’s players, who didn’t want to sacrifice years of NCAA eligibility for a program whose continued existence was uncertain.

But one by one, the pieces came together. Former Chugiak High Mustang, UAA Seawolf and Alaska Aces player Matt Shasby came on board as the program’s new head coach. In January, he was able to recruit Fairbanks Ice Dogs head coach Trevor Stewart, who led the Interior Alaska junior hockey team to two national championships over the past decade; Stewart will serve as associate head coach for the Seawolves. Aided by new NCAA policies making transfers easier and giving players a year of expanded eligibility due to the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects, players returned too.

Will all of this positive momentum carry over to success on the ice? That remains to be seen. A feel-good story is no guarantee that a season will go your way, and rebuilding an entire hockey program almost from scratch is a major undertaking — one that won’t be complete in a single year, or even a few. But one thing’s for sure: If you want to see where the story goes from here, the best way is to be in a seat rinkside when the Seawolves face off on Friday, Sept. 23 against Simon Fraser University. They’ve come this far; the least we can do is show up to see how much farther they can go. After all, UAA has rebuilding to do as a hockey program, but Anchorage has work to do to reestablish its reputation as a hockey town, too.

Anchorage Daily News editorial board

Editorial opinions are by the editorial board, which welcomes responses from readers. Board members are ADN President Ryan Binkley, Publisher Andy Pennington and Opinion Editor Tom Hewitt. The board operates independently from the ADN newsroom. To submit feedback, a letter or longer commentary for consideration, email commentary@adn.com.