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Seawolves and their new hockey coach take a chance on each other

  • Author: Beth Bragg
    | Sports
  • Updated: April 21
  • Published April 21

Matt Curley, the newly named UAA Seawolf head hockey coach, talks to the press in the Seawolf locker room Saturday. (Bob Hallinen / ADN)

Wearing a green tie he borrowed from a friend for the occasion, Matt Curley was introduced as UAA's new hockey coach at a Saturday afternoon press conference held in the locker room that will soon become part of his workplace.

He stood at a podium as he spoke with members of the media. Behind him, high on a wall, was a framed green-and-gold jersey honoring Brush Christiansen, the man who started the UAA hockey team back in 1979.

Curley, 35, is the sixth head coach in school history, and like many of the coaches before him, his job is rebuild a program that hasn't had sustained success since Christiansen was the coach.

He's an outside-the-box hire. He comes to UAA after three seasons as the head coach of the ED Red Bulls junior team in Salzburg, Austria, and in eight years of coaching he has spent just two seasons at the college level — he was an assistant coach at Bentley University of the Atlantic Hockey Conference from 2013-15.

Curley wasn't UAA's first choice. Multiple reports have said three other coaches declined offers to coach a team that University of Alaska administrators threatened to kill two years ago when dealing with brutal budget cuts.

But Curley said he was excited to say yes.

"These jobs are very rare," he said.

Very, very rare. There are only 60 NCAA Division I hockey teams in the nation, and 43 people applied for the UAA job despite the program's past struggles and potentially shaky future, which relies in part on whether Alaska's sagging, oil-based economy will rebound.

Getting into the win column more often and putting more fans in Sullivan Arena could decide the future too — for Curley, and for Seawolves hockey.

Curley said he knows the credentials of the men who turned down the chance to lead the Seawolves and called them good candidates.

"I knew where I stood in the pecking order," he said, and he didn't seem perturbed to address the issue.

The fact that others turned down the job? "All that means to me is it opened a door," he said.

UAA players listen as their new coach talks to the press. (Bob Hallinen / ADN)

In its press release announcing the hire, UAA said Curley "comes to UAA with a diverse coaching background." The school is gambling that a lot of time working with junior-level programs will trump Curley's lack of college experience.

And frankly, Curley is gambling on UAA. He's taking over a program that is coming off a 4-26-4 season under Matt Thomas, who was let go after five seasons. If being a Division I head coach is what Curley wants for the long run, he needs to succeed with a program that has had one winning season since entering the Western Collegiate Hockey Association full-time in 1993-94.

For UAA, one of the most promising parts of Curley's experience is the time he has spent as a coach with USA Hockey's development teams.

He's had three stints with U-18 teams, most recently in 2015, and was part of the staff that led the United States to the gold medal at the 2011 U-18 world championships. Ian Marks, UAA's assistant athletic director for media relations, said Curley will work with another USA Hockey youth team this summer.

Curley said he thinks his USA Hockey and junior connections — besides the three seasons in Austria, he was an assistant coach for the Indiana Ice of the U.S. Hockey League — will help with recruiting.

"I've built a lot of good relationships and I will utilize those to the best of my ability," said Curley, who said he will put an emphasis on recruiting players from Anchorage and the West Coast.

"It's best to start looking in the backyard and see what's at home," he said. "But whether they're from Anchorage or Salzburg, we'll find those kids."

Curley traveled to Anchorage from Salzburg earlier this week, a long journey that he'll make again soon to wrap up business with his old team and pack up a household of four. He and his wife Samantha are the parents of two children, 6-year-old Tess and 4-year-old Jack.

Curley's most significant tie to Alaska is the green one he borrowed for his press conference. He and his wife are both from the East Coast, he played four seasons for Clarkson University in New York — as a senior assistant captain, he helped the Golden Knights to the ECAC title in 2007 — and the kids have spent more time in Europe than the United States.

"They know (Alaska is) in America," Curley said with a smile. "For them, Austria and Central Europe has been home."

When he introduced the new coach on Saturday, UAA interim athletic director Tim McDiffett said Curley "five years ago took a chance on himself and went to Austria to get exerience as a head coach."

He's taking another chance now by accepting a job others rejected and moving his family halfway across the world to a university that two years ago considered eliminating hockey.

UAA is taking a chance too by hiring a man with scant college coaching experience.

Curley on Saturday admitted he doesn't have the background that would get him a job at a hockey powerhouse. In that regard, he has something in common with the Seawolves, who at this point can't attract the kind of established coach a powerhouse can.

If the outside-the-box hiring of Curley can give the Seawolves hope, it's a start. Ryan McCarthy wasn't an established head coach when he was hired to coach the UAA women's basketball team, and that worked out OK.

UAA coaching history

Brush Christiansen, 1980-96 — 287-229-30 (17 seasons)
Dean Talafous, 1997-2001 — 50-108-22 (5 seasons)
John Hill, 2001-05 — 39-89-15 (4 seasons)
Dave Shyiak, 2005-13 — 80-177-33 (8 seasons)
Matt Thomas, 2013-18 — 48-105-21 (5 seasons)

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