Alaska will have no college basketball and no college hockey this winter.
The University of Alaska Fairbanks on Friday announced it won’t compete in hockey, men’s basketball and women’s basketball this school year, a decision that comes a month after UAA made the same choice.
The news came three weeks before the Nanooks were scheduled to play their first hockey game of the season and a little more than a month before the basketball teams were due to start.
UAF plans to go forward with three non-contact sports — riflery, swimming and skiing.
Last month, UAA decided to bow out of the NCAA Division I hockey and Division II basketball seasons because of the pandemic, but UAF took a wait-and-see approach. Since then COVID-19 cases and deaths have hit record numbers in Alaska and the rest of the nation.
“We were all hoping that conditions would improve so that our teams could compete,” Nanooks athletic director Keith Champagne said in a statement released by the school.
But for athletes playing indoor contact sports, the risks are too high, UAF chancellor Dan White said.
“The health and safety of our student-athletes is paramount,” White said in a written statement. “Participation in indoor contact sports like basketball and hockey creates elevated risk to the athletes and those who train and travel with them.”
An hour or two after the cancellations were announced, an online petition protesting the decision was launched and had gathered more than 2,200 supporters by Saturday afternoon.
“The cancellation came with no notice and no consideration of the staff or players,” states the petition, created by UAF senior forward Justin Young. “We’ve continuously followed rules and guidelines at the rink and around the community to do our part so we can have a season, the work the team has put in thus far seems as if it is unnoticed by administration.”
The Western Collegiate Hockey Association opened the season last month, but the Nanooks weren’t scheduled to play until a Jan. 1-2 road series at Lake Superior State in Michigan. College hockey got off to a delayed start because of COVID-19, and already two WCHA games have been postponed.
Unless the petition persuades UAF to reconsider, Friday’s announcement marks the end of WCHA play in Alaska. The 2020-21 season was going to be the last for seven of the league’s 10 teams, who are ditching the WCHA next season to create their own league without the Alaska teams and Alabama-Huntsville.
The conference issued a bit of a farewell statement to the Nanooks after getting word from UAF that it was opting out of the hockey season.
“We realize this was a challenging and tough decision,” WCHA commissioner Bill Robertson said. “All of us at the WCHA wish UAF nothing but success in the future with their hockey program.”
At this point UAF probably is facing life as a team without a conference, and creating a schedule without the guarantee of conference games can be challenging.
UAA, meanwhile, is facing elimination because of university budget cuts. What happens in the next two months will determine whether the Seawolves ever play another game.
The University of Alaska Board of Regents voted in September to cut hockey, alpine skiing and gymnastics after the 2020-21 school year. The regents said they will consider reinstatement of any program that can raise enough money to cover two seasons’ worth of operating expenses by mid-February.
For the hockey program to survive, it must raise $3 million. Earlier Friday, the Save Seawolf Hockey fundraising group announced it has surpassed the $1 million mark with about two months to go. Among the contributions are $25,000 apiece from alumni Brian Kraft and Steve Bogoyevac, teammates during UAA’s glory days in the early 1990s.
With the Nanooks and Seawolves both sitting out the year, Alaska will have no high-level hockey this season.
The Alaska Aces of the ECHL are long gone, and the state’s two Tier II junior hockey teams — the Fairbanks Ice Dogs and Kenai River Brown Bears of the North American Hockey League — have yet to play in Alaska this season.
Those teams temporarily relocated to Minnesota to minimize travel during the pandemic — the Ice Dogs to Marshall and the Brown Bears to Pequot Lakes — but a Nov. 18 decision to shut down youth sports in Minnesota has left both teams idle.