The University of Alaska Anchorage’s hockey team is putting its turbulent off-season behind it. And with a new athletic director and head coach at the helm, the team has an opportunity to take advantage of a clean slate of sorts.
The team is practicing at the Sullivan Arena this week, preparing for their first big tournament of the season. The forwards and defensemen start off with some passing and skating drills to get their blood flowing, and new head coach Matt Thomas is firing pucks on net to help the goalies loosen up.
There’s a lot of pressure on a new coach when they take over a team; some of it’s from fans, some from the staff and players, and, according to Coach Thomas, a lot comes from him.
“I embrace that pressure; it’s why I’m in this business; it’s why I coach. I’ve got gray hair to prove it; I’ve got enough stress – and I should be getting massages weekly because the stress is in the shoulders and the neck, but I wouldn’t want it any other way,” he said.
Thomas is taking over a team that hasn’t had a winning season in this millennium, and he recognizes that it can be a tough trend to break. But, he wants the players and staff to improve every day and recognize what their strengths are so they can take advantage of them.
“I think you coach based on the players you have and the type of team you have and right now we’ve got a team of very committed, hard-working players that – if we play a good team game – I think it gives us a chance to win every night,” Thomas said.
And with a shaken up Western Collegiate Hockey Association – which features six new teams, including UAA’s in-state rivals, the University of Alaska Fairbanks Nanooks – there should be plenty of opportunities to win.
Thomas says the makeup of the old conference put programs like UAA’s – that didn’t have the resources of the larger programs – at a disadvantage, but, he thinks the conference’s new look will level the playing field.
“I think you’re going to see a very competitive conference where every team is truly committed each night and has a strong belief that they can win,” he said.
Not all of Thomas’s duties are on the ice.
He and his staff have been busy all summer working to bring in new recruits and they have had some success, but not necessarily with the top Alaskan prospects, because they want to play somewhere else.
“Right now, the program needs to get to a higher level of winning and tradition and really bring a lot of pride to the young kids that when they grow up they want to be part of this program – and right now that’s not the case,” he said.
Thomas says having the team become more involved with youth hockey programs in the area will be a big step in fixing that problem.
“Looking towards the future it’s something that we’re certainly looking to do, because we do want all the talent that is in Alaska we want it all to stay right here in Anchorage and be a part of UAA hockey,” he said.
Coach Thomas and the rest of the Seawolves are hosting the 2013 Kendall Hockey Classic this weekend In Anchorage, where they will face off against Air Force and Quinnipiac.