College hockey in Alaska, which survived death threats three years ago, is more imperiled than ever after a double-dose of bad news Friday.
First came the bombshell from Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who slashed $130 million in state funding from the University of Alaska — about 40% of the 2019-20 university budget.
Then came news of a potential shakeup in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, the 10-team NCAA Division I league that includes the Seawolves of UAA and the Nanooks of UAF. Seven of the teams want to leave the WCHA and form a league that doesn’t include UAA, UAF and Alabama Huntsville.
“It would be sad if all of a sudden there’s not (college) hockey up here, because it’s meant a lot to the communities and the kids growing up,” said longtime college hockey coach Don Lucia, whose career included stops at UAA and UAF.
“Hopefully hockey will be here in five or 10 years from now, but without question this is a very trying time — not only for the hockey programs but for the athletics departments as well.”
Three years ago, the university unveiled a financial strategy report that proposed cutting the hockey teams. The option was scrapped and the programs endured, but the current threat is greater.
Dealing with the potentially devastating budget cuts will get the UAA athletic department’s immediate attention, athletic director Greg Myford told KHAR radio Saturday. Then it will contend with the WCHA shakeup.
The WCHA 7 — Bemidji State, Bowling Green, Ferris State, Lake Superior State, Michigan Tech, Minnesota State-Mankato and Northern Michigan — has already begun the process of leaving the WCHA and creating a new league, a spokesman for the group said Friday.
The teams would remain in the WCHA for two more seasons, because WCHA bylaws require teams to give a two-year notice before departing the league.
By the 2021-22 season, they would begin play in a new league — one that doesn’t require teams to travel to Alaska or Alabama to play teams that routinely finish in the bottom half of the conference standings.
UAA and UAF were blindsided by Friday’s news out of the WCHA. Myford and UAF chancellor Dan White both said they had no advance notice a shakeup was coming.
“Clearly, the group of institutions choosing to depart the WCHA have been collaborating on doing so independent of UAA, UAF or UAH,” Myford said Friday by email. On Saturday’s “Sports Guys” radio show, he said there was no inkling that something was brewing at the WCHA’s annual meeting earlier this month.
Friday’s developments came about three years after the university’s Strategic Pathways financial strategy report proposed cutting the hockey programs. The teams survived, but not unscathed.
Last month, UAA announced that to save money it would move home hockey games to the Seawolves’ practice rink on campus. Instead of playing at Sullivan Arena, which seats more than 6,000 for hockey, UAA will play at the Wells Fargo Sports Complex, which seats about 800.
UAF has also said it may consider leaving the Carlson Center for the smaller, on-campus Patty Center.
“It probably wasn’t a good thing when UAA moved back to a small facility,” Lucia said, “because I know the WCHA does have the league minimum (standards).”
Lucia, who officially retired from the University of Minnesota on Friday, speaks from a position of authority and experience. He led the Minnesota Gophers to two national championships in 19 seasons as head coach, was the head coach at UAF for six seasons from 1987-93 and before that spent two seasons as Brush Christiansen’s assistant coach at UAA.
Lucia left UAF the year before the Alaska schools gained admission to Division I hockey conferences. In 1993-94, after struggling for a decade as independents, UAA was admitted to the WCHA and UAF was admitted to the Central Collegiate Hockey Association. In 2013-14, a realignment in college hockey saw the demise of the CCHA and the emergence of a new-look WCHA that included both Alaska schools.
Lucia said there have been concerns among some WCHA teams in recent years about the competitiveness of the Alaska schools. In the last four seasons, UAA and UAF have both finished in the bottom half of the league standings, with UAA finishing last three times.
Also of concern was the travel — most WCHA teams make two trips a year to Alaska, which Lucia said can be burdensome.
“When the leagues first began, there was a reason why Anchorage ended up in one and Fairbanks in the other — it made travel easier,” he said.
In a statement released Friday, the seven WCHA schools say they want an “elite” conference with a smaller geographic footprint — one that would be made up of schools with “an institutional investment that demonstrates significant commitment to their hockey programs and facilities.”
“The seven schools are calling it a ‘transformative endeavor,’ ” Morris Kurtz, the group’s spokesman and the former athletic director at St. Cloud State, said in an interview Friday.
"This isn’t about us being against anyone else, this is for the best academic and athletic opportunities for the student athlete at these seven schools. These institutions are simply interested in providing what they feel is the best direction going forward.”
The UAF chancellor said the Alaska schools might benefit from a conference realignment.
“We are encouraged that there are a number of teams looking now, or will be looking soon, to join an NCAA Division I men’s ice hockey conference," White said in a written statement. "While disappointed, in our WCHA colleagues’ decision to leave, we look forward to the chance that lies ahead for building new partnerships.”
There are 60 NCAA Division I college hockey teams. Only one of them, Arizona State, is an independent; the other 59 belong to conferences.
Lucia was with the Nanooks back when Alaska’s hockey teams were still independents. It was tough to schedule opponents, especially for home games, he said.
“You start getting into mid-January till the end of the season and it’s really hard to schedule games, because teams are locked into their conferences,” he said.
As far as emerging programs, Lucia said he doesn’t see a lot of growth coming in Division I men’s college hockey.
“It’s an expensive sport and there are Title IX implications,” he said of the federal law that requires gender equity in athletic programs. “And everything is budget-driven.”
That’s true more than ever for college hockey in Alaska.
Unless the state Legislature overrides or otherwise sidesteps Dunleavy’s budget cuts, the athletic departments at UAA and UAF can expect deep cuts — to hockey and probably everything else.
“I don’t know how you withstand a 40% budget cut,” Lucia said. “… What the legislature winds up doing will end up being more important than what the WCHA is doing.”