The Western Collegiate Hockey Association’s annual media teleconference began with avoidance from the league commissioner and ended with stark reality from UAA hockey coach Matt Curley on Wednesday.
WCHA commissioner Bill Robertson offered a sunny outlook in his opening remarks, never once referring to the offseason bombshell dropped by seven of the conference’s 10 members, who announced they are exploring the creation of a new league that would begin play in 2021-22.
Their plan does not include WCHA members UAA, UAF and Alabama Huntsville. For the two Alaska schools, the prospect of losing their conference affiliation added to the turmoil of a summer spent worrying about deep, system-wide budget cuts at the University of Alaska.
The 2019-20 school year will proceed as usual for the hockey team and the rest of the UAA athletic department, not counting the school’s decision to play home hockey games at its on-campus practice rink instead of at Sullivan Arena, the Seawolves’ home for more than 30 years.
But what happens to UAA athletics after this school year is still unknown.
Curley made that clear when asked how the University of Alaska’s shaky financial state impacts his efforts to recruit players and put a team on the ice.
“It’s the million-dollar question, right? The gorilla in the room, the pink elephant in the room, and unfortunately right now I don’t have (a definitive) answer one way or another,” said Curley, the ninth of 10 coaches to speak Wednesday.
He said he hopes to get a clearer sense of what budget reductions will look like in the coming weeks as the Board of Regents and university leaders work on a plan for the future — “a future I hope that includes the Seawolves,” he said.
In the meantime, Curley said, he is adhering to a policy of transparency when talking to recruits and their parents.
"We’re being very open and honest with the reality we’re faced with, and the reality is we’re not sure what the future holds,” Curley said. “We can’t guarantee anything other than, hey, we’re planning on moving forward.
“Right now obviously it puts a wrinkle in things and makes things extremely difficult in terms of getting those kids that are now starting to play in these showcase (tournaments). … We’re making sure we know those kids, we know the player pools, (that) we’re building these relationships and building that trust in the hopes when we do get some more definitive answers where we can say in confidence that we’re here to stay, league-wise, school-wise or other, that we’ll be able to move forward these kids, having been open, having been honest, and having built that relationship.
“It certainly makes for an already-difficult place to get kids to come to that much harder," he said.
In conjunction with Wednesday’s teleconference, the WCHA announced a pair of preseason polls, one based on voting by league coaches and the other based on voting by media members. UAA was picked to finish last in both of the polls; UAF was picked seventh in one and eighth in the other.
The Seawolves will play their annual Green and Gold game at the Seawolves Sports Complex on Oct. 5 before heading to the University of Maine for their Oct. 11-12 season-opening games.
Their roster includes nine freshmen, five sophomores, eight juniors and five seniors, and some of the freshmen will be expected to contribute immediately as the Seawolves try to improve on last season’s 3-28-3 record, Curley said.
“The kids willing to stick with us are here for a reason,” he said.