Alaska Anchorage returned to the ice last weekend for the first time since the school announced that they were dropping their hockey program in the summer of 2020.
Just taking the ice again was a triumphant moment for the Seawolves. After years of needing desperate, last-minute fundraising efforts to keep the program afloat, it looked as though the program had finally met its’ end. But after the Anchorage hockey community raised over $3M to resurrect the program, the school announced it would reinstate the program, just over a year after the program was cut.
That brought Anchorage to last Friday night, when the Seawolves hosted a season opener against a ranked opponent in Western Michigan. Expectations were predictably low for UAA heading into the game, but in almost storybook fashion, the Seawolves pulled off a 3-1 upset, with local Anchorage native Max Helgeson assisting on the team’s first goal and adding a key insurance goal in the third period.
They couldn’t quite recapture the second magic on Saturday night. They managed to stay even for 40 minutes, tied 1-1 heading into the third period, but Western Michigan pulled away with three third period goals for a 4-1 win.
Watching the games(all of UAA’s home games are streamed, for free, on YouTube), it was pretty clear that the Seawolves were at a talent deficit, but they played the type of low-scoring, high-variance game that gave them a chance, and were able to get the bounces they needed to build a lead on Friday and carry it to a win.
The creation and greater adoption of the Transfer Portal since the Seawolves last took the ice should be a huge help to the program going forward. This year’s team rosters 12 transfers from other Division I schools. While that number is likely a little higher than average due to the fact that they had so many spots to fill, it’s probably not a bad recruiting strategy going forward. If they can continue to pick up some fringe guys from bigger schools with the offer of immediate playing time, they have a better chance at being competitive.
Their status of an independent also, strangely, might help them as well. Back when Anchorage was in the WCHA, it was absolutely essential for opposing teams to not give away critical league points to a perennial bottom-feeder. Anchorage was getting close to everybody’s best shot. The vibes are very different for a non-conference series. Technically, there are decimals in the Pairwise Rankings at stake, but that’s not really a huge consideration for teams outside of the top third of the country, and even a little too abstract a concept for the teams it matters for. That’s been a huge benefit for Arizona State in recent years, as they’ve rode a wave of flat performances and back-up goalies from the opposition to some nice wins and respectable seasons in recent years.
Of course, there are still concerns about the long-term sustainability for the Seawolves program. They’re playing home games at the Seawolf Sports Complex, the school’s student recreation center, which has a capacity of 750. That places some pretty heavy revenue limitations on a school where an already costly sport is even more expensive due to the extra travel costs required.
There is also the issue of Alaska Anchorage finding a long-term conference home, after their former conference rather pointedly disbanded and then re-formed without them. While there’s maybe some short-term competitive advantage to being an independent, as mentioned above, there’s a deeper long-term problem of being at the complete whim of the generosity of other schools to fill a schedule. College hockey has been better about making the effort to schedule independent schools—it helped that there was a push to make a big-name school like Arizona State work, as opposed to say, Alabama-Huntsville, which received minimal help—but there’s still no firm guarantee that any team has to come play in Anchorage.
Overall, will hockey at Alaska Anchorage be any different than it was last time? It’s tough to say. There are still some very real challenges that will likely keep them from ever being a major player nationally. But the possibility exists for them to get back to being a pesky opponent that can steal the occasional game from anyone, and hopefully have enough success that they can make things work financially. It’s great to see a program with the history of Alaska Anchorage back on the ice, and hopefully this is the start of a competitive and stable program.