The Last Frontier: Future of hockey in Alaska in doubt

Alaska hockey
Could hockey be the next species going extinct in the Alaskan wilderness? (Photo by J.P. Hoornstra)

Alaska is known for many things, including an excessive amount of oil and two Division I college hockey programs. Unfortunately for hockey fans, the former could have a dramatic effect on the latter.

There’s a budget crisis going on in the Last Frontier that is caused primarily due to falling oil prices. As a result, the state doesn’t have as much money as normal to fund university programs. So the legislature is debating a wide variety of proposals to cut spending and so are the two largest schools, Alaska-Anchorage and Alaska-Fairbanks.

I already wrote a more thorough column for my newspaper, the Mining Journal, so I’ll sum up the proposals for you quickly. The ideas put forth by both schools range from ridiculously harsh to difficult but sensible. The first is to cut all athletic programs at either one school or both. This could save a significant amount of funding, but the problems with that is that both of the schools share expenses to get other teams to come up and play there. So if one department gets eliminated, then the other is responsible for everything. This could be a huge problem. Alaska’s schools aren’t very big and can’t function entirely on their own like, let’s say, Michigan or Ohio State. Also, by choosing to eliminate athletics, the two schools would lose their biggest identity and their biggest marketing factor. Until I started following college hockey regularly, I didn’t know that UAA or UAF existed. If both teams get cut, they could be forgotten very quickly. Among other problems, this proposal would make Alaska the only state without varsity athletic programs. Considering Alaska is the largest state in the nation, that could be a tough blow.

The second plan would be to take both schools and combine athletics into one model. Basically, the teams would be split between the two campuses and compete as one university. So the hockey team could become the Seanooks or the Nanwolves. Yikes.

The number of sports would plummet from 23 to 10 so that the program remaining could still be a Division II competitor. It’s a better option than the first one, but the NCAA would have to approve it first and that wouldn’t be easy considering that this idea would be unprecedented. If it does get approved, then there are compliance and Title IX issues to deal with, turning it into a long process and a major hassle.

The third and final option has two variations to it. The first is that either one or both schools would dump all of their Division I sports, including hockey, and keep the DII sports. If hockey gets dropped, the schools would have to pick up cheaper sports to make up for it. Supposedly, Anchorage would eliminate hockey, skiing and gymnastics, but would add soccer for both genders. Fairbanks then would take out hockey, rifle, skiing and swimming for soccer, golf and track and field. The other variation is that UAA drops to DII and UAF keeps all sports as well as hockey. This would destroy a popular rivalry in the state and it could take the new programs quite a while to become relevant.

None of the options are great and each has significant flaws. However, if the budget crisis can’t be resolved on its own and these are the only choices, I’d go with option two. There’s still a long way to go in this process and the coaches at both schools have said that they are just focusing on this season, and not what might happen next year. Still, if either team is coming to your favorite squad’s barn this year, you might want to get tickets. It could be the last time you see them again.

On that happy note, it’s time for me to reveal my picks on who will make the NCAA Tournament. I decided to go with a different format this year. Instead of listing the order of how I think each conference will play out, which can get long, I’ll give you my picks for the Frozen Four, and which teams could contend for those spots.

Sound good? Here we go.

The contenders

1. North Dakota – The defending national champs lost a few pieces, but they still bring a lot back. Forward Brock Boeser is the biggest name. The sophomore is coming off a 60-point season and after the first weekend, he’s already racked up a goal and five assists. Tucker Poolman and Austin Poganski both picked up more than 20 points last year and Rhett Gardner had a solid freshman season. The Fighting Hawks also bring back goalie Cam Johnson, who played lights-out in the NCAA Tournament and finished the year with an insane GAA of 1.66. UND also brings in a strong freshman class led by center Tyson Jost, who racked up 104 points last season in the BCHL. It’s very hard to repeat as national champions, but this team is definitely capable of doing so.

2. Quinnipiac – The Bobcats have now built up a reputation of stellar regular seasons and good postseason runs until falling flat on their faces in the title game. They did it against Yale in 2013 and to UND last season, and both times left analysts wondering what the hell happened. QU heads into this year in good shape. Senior forward Tim Clifton notched 43 points last year and he is supported by Landon Smith (37 points) and Tanner MacMaster. The Bobcats have a new No. 1 goalie this year in Chris Truehl, who transferred from Air Force. Truehl put forth some good stats out in Colorado, so QU is set there. They aren’t as strong as last year, but they still good enough to win the ECAC and possibly make it to the Frozen Four in Chicago.

3. Denver – The Pioneers came thisclose to a national title game bid last year after coming back to tie North Dakota at the Frozen Four, but a late goal did them in and DU was forced to look forward to 2016-17. The Hawks may be the favorite in the NCHC, but DU is right behind. The Pioneers are one of the deepest teams in the nation, led by All-American defenseman Will Butcher. Dylan Gambrell is primed for a breakout year and he’ll have good support from Troy Terry and Matt Marcinew. Tanner Jailliet is also one of the best goalies around, so if everybody reaches their full potential, this could be an awesome year for DU.

4. Boston University – The Terriers will have some bite to them this year. Yeah, they lost star Danny O’Regan, but BU just reloaded this year as they typically do. The Terriers have four players that were picked during the NHL draft this year including defenseman Charlie McAvoy. Other first-rounders include Clayton Keller, Dante Fabbro and Kieffer Bellows. Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson is also back to lead the offense (30 points last year), so BU looks good almost everywhere. The Terriers weakness may be in net as they will be relying on freshman Jake Oettinger, but the Terriers are so good that it might not matter who is back there.

The “almost there’s”

5. Minnesota-Duluth – Ah, the perpetually underachieving Bulldogs. Last year’s preseason NCHC favorite looked very mortal at times and frankly downright sad to watch. However, they came together at the right time, made the NCAA Tournament and came one game short of making the Frozen Four. The Bulldogs lost some key scorers, but bring back a lot of speed in Dominic Toninato, Kyle Osterberg and Alex Iafallo. UMD’s big question mark is in net as Kasimir Kaskisuo has moved on to the pros. All three of the Bulldogs’ goalies have never played in college before, so it will be interesting to see who gets the starting job.

6. Notre Dame – The Fighting Irish return four of their top five scorers, including defensemen Jordan Gross and Bobby Nardella. Gross and Nardella will also have scoring help from Anders Bjork and Jake Evans. The Irish also have a great goalie in Cal Peterson, who had a sharp 2.20 GAA last year and is a contender for Hockey East Player of the Year. BU may be the favorite this year and for good reason. However, the Irish could easily topple them in their final year in the conference before they head to the Big Ten in 2017-18. For what it’s worth, the Irish won the conference during the CCHA’s final season.

7. Bowling Green – This year is the year for the Falcons. For the past couple of seasons, BGSU has been a team on the rise in the WCHA and I think it makes a statement this time around. The Falcons look good all-around. Kevin Dufour, Mitch McLain and Matt Pohlkamp have all been consistent point producers and Mark Friedman is one of the best defensemen in the league. The Falcons also have the preseason All-WCHA First Team goalie in Chris Nell. Even though they stumbled out of the gate with a road sweep at the hands of Bemidji State, I think the Falcons will bounce back quickly and will make some noise in the NCAAs.

8. Minnesota – The Big Ten is pathetic. There, I said it. However, somebody has to win this conference and it looks the Golden Gophers are the team to beat. UM lost a bunch of key players including Hudson Fasching (38 points) and Michael Brodzinski, but they still have a good attack. Justin Kloos is back after leading the Gophers last year with 43 points and so are Leon Bristedt (37) and Tyler Sheehy (30). Minnesota also has a small but talented freshmen group led by Rem Pitlick, who was the USHL Player of the Year and Ryan Lindgren captained the U-18 national team to a bronze medal at the World Championships. The Gophers will have just enough to win the conference, but will most likely get bounced early in the NCAAs.

Teams that could sneak in to Chicago: Boston College, UMass-Lowell, Michigan Tech, Ferris State, Nebraska-Omaha, Northeastern.

I’ll close my preview by talking about the team I mainly cover, Northern Michigan. The reason isn’t just because it’s the team that I know the best, but it’s going to be an interesting season and if all goes well, it could be an impressive one.

Northern’s returning players include All-WCHA Preseason First Team member Dominik Shine. Shine made the Second Team last season after a 30-point season and when you combine him with Gerard Hanson and Robbie Payne, Northern is a force offensively. Payne was recently named WCHA Player of the Week after a six-point weekend. Zach Diamantoni is also emerging into a talented forward, Troy Loggins had a lot of hype going into last year before suffering a season-ending leg injury and defenseman Brock Maschmeyer is determined to make up for a frustrating junior year. He’s off to a good start as he had three assists in the first game. The Cats also have a good incoming class including freshman Darien Craighead, who was a point-per-game player the last two years in the BCHL, and defenseman Rylan Yaremko, who participated in the New York Rangers’ development camp. Northern’s biggest strength continues to be goaltending. Atte Tolvanen made the WCHA All-Rookie Team last year after being thrust into the No. 1 job after Mathias Dahlstrom took longer than expected to recover from his knee injury. With Dahlstrom graduating, Tolvanen is the starter for now. He has some stiff competition, though. Mathias Israelsson looked very sharp at times last year before getting moved back to the No. 3 spot when Dahlstrom returned. Most teams would love to just have one No. 1 goalie. Northern, the envy of the league, has two. What really makes this a make-or-break year for the Cats is that head coach Walt Kyle is in the last year of his contract. If things go well, he should be back next year, but if they don’t, the outlook doesn’t look good for him. So if you want another team to focus on as well as your favorite one, keep an eye on the Wildcats. It’s going to be an interesting ride.

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