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Wanted: Coaches for Alaska college hockey teams that were on the chopping block

  • Author: Beth Bragg
    | Sports
  • Updated: April 19
  • Published April 18

As social media buzzes with anonymously sourced reports of multiple coaches rejecting job offers from both of Alaska's Division I college hockey teams, you have to wonder if this is playing out exactly the way the University of Alaska had in mind all along.

Two years ago, the university released a study called Strategic Pathways, which offered ways to consolidate and cut programs in the wake of severe budget cuts.

Among the recommendations were three for hockey. Two would have eliminated the sport at both schools. A third would have consolidated the two programs into a single team, something quickly discounted because the NCAA is unlikely to approve a cooperative effort between two schools separated by some 350 miles.

Yet what we're seeing today — no coaching hires at either school, possibly because candidates are turning down offers — seems like the manifestation of a more insidious, longer-term strategy by the university: Administrators decide not to cut hockey, thereby escaping public scorn. But by threatening the programs, they ensure uncertain futures for the teams — and maybe hasten a natural demise for one or both programs that spares the university from backlash.

Strategic Pathways didn't kill college hockey in Alaska, but it sure did cripple it. When he was let go this spring after five seasons as the UAA hockey coach, Matt Thomas said it was difficult to recruit once the Strategic Pathways report was released.

"It's a daily question when we're talking to a recruit or the coach of a junior team: 'Is your program folding?' " he said.

"It's something we haven't been able to overcome (because) there's never been a statement (from the school) saying, 'Hey, we're good to go.' "

If players are worried because they fear the team may fold, it's a given that prospective coaches will think long and hard before uprooting themselves and their families to take a job in Alaska that comes with little security. College coaching doesn't offer much security to begin with, but it gets beyond dicey if the university views a team as disposable and says so in a publicly disseminated report.

Then there is the little fact that the athletic departments at both UAA and UAF are operating with interim athletic directors right now, meaning prospective coaches don't know who their boss will be or what vision that boss will bring to the job.

At this point, UAA and UAF may find that the most strategic pathway going forward is to offer the job to someone who already has Alaska in his blood and wants to be here despite the uncertainties.

At UAF, that person could be Lance West, a longtime assistant who was the Nanooks' interim head coach this season and one of two finalists for the UAF job along with Brent Brekke, a former assistant coach at Miami-Ohio.

At UAA, that person could be John Hill, a former Seawolf captain who was the school's head coach from 2001-05. The first coach to take the Seawolves to the Western Collegiate Hockey Association's Final Five, Hill resigned after failing to secure a guaranteed contract extension for himself and pay raises for his assistant coaches. Hill this week said he has applied for the job but did not wish to comment further.

Until someone says yes, unsubstantiated reports about coaches declining offers from UAA and UAF will continue to cast both programs in a bad light. Twitter and online college hockey forums already are filled with threads about why no one wants to coach hockey in Alaska.

Given Alaska's ongoing budget crisis, UAA and UAF may not be able to offer their top candidates the resources those coaches believe are necessary to succeed (and to propel their career forward). We've sent emails to all three of the men who according to unsourced reports have turned down offers from UAA and have yet to hear back from any of them. We'd like to know if the reports are true, and if they are true, we'd like to ask what made the men say no.

All we know for sure is UAA hadn't hired anyone as of Wednesday afternoon, when Tim McDiffett, UAA's interim athletic director, said the search for a hockey coach is ongoing. He said he isn't in position to comment further. When we asked if anyone is in position to comment, he said no, not at this time.

This column is the opinion of sports editor Beth Bragg. Reach her at bbragg@adn.com.

An early version of this story incorrectly said John Hill is the only coach to take UAA to the WCHA Final Five. Two others have done it since — Dave Shyiak in 2011 and Matt Thomas in 2014.

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