Matt Thomas stares out his office window and sees sunlight, beautiful sunlight. Magnified by the heaps of snow covering the ground, it beams. When the coach from Mississauga, Ont., was looking for a new job four years ago, he wanted somewhere unique, where he could raise his family. He found it at the University of Alaska-Anchorage, where he has been the bench boss of the WCHA’s Seawolves for the past four seasons.
“This is one of the most fascinating and beautiful places you can live in North America,” he said. “It’s legit the last frontier.”
With the Chugach Mountains literally next to his house, Thomas is surrounded by wondrous winter elements. And even in Alaska’s largest city, it’s common to see Moose walking downtown or, as was the case recently, in Thomas’ driveway as he’s working a snowblower.
Downtown, folks that work around Park Strip will spend their lunch hours playing shinny and it seems like every school has an outdoor rink. Pond hockey is a way of life in Alaska.
“They put Zambonis on ponds here!” Thomas said.
But despite the devotion to the sport, Alaskans are seeing high-level hockey die off in their state. The season began with the chilling news that the NCAA Seawolves and rival Alaska-Fairbanks Nanooks could be on the chopping block as the state’s university system looked for ways to save money. That was a gut-punch for the most recent Nanooks hero, St. Louis Blues defenseman Colton Parayko.
“You look back and it’s pretty amazing that something like that can happen to a program that you played for,” Parayko said. “It’s hard to take in almost, in the sense that it could actually be gone.”
By mid-November, the board of regents determined that hockey would be spared the axe, calming the nerves of the two programs. But other teams in the state haven’t been so lucky.
On Feb. 23, the ECHL’s Alaska Aces announced they were ceasing operations. The Aces, who won three Kelly Cup championships (the last in 2013-14), had been a mainstay in Anchorage for years and even featured native son and former New Jersey Devils star Scott Gomez during the past two NHL lockouts. In an official press release, Terry Parks of the ownership group cited the financial squeeze of the local economy as the driving force behind shuttering the franchise.
“We worked through every possible solution that might have avoided this outcome,” he said. “But it became painfully obvious to us that, in this economy, a professional hockey team is not sustainable in Alaska.”
Days after the Aces announcement, the Kenai River Brown Bears of junior’s North American League, revealed that they too would be ceasing operations. The Brown Bears were 10-year veterans of the NAHL, but as GM Nate Kiel told the Peninsula Clarion, the money just wasn’t there.
“Although this has been a passion of mine and others on the board, we have to be realistic in terms of what we can or can’t accomplish,” he said. “At this time, things are upside down and it would be fiscally irresponsible to continue.”
For now, that leaves Alaska with one NAHL franchise – the Fairbanks Ice Dogs – and two major college programs. It’s a far cry from just a few years ago when the Aces were huge and other junior teams roamed the state, but life in Alaska has changed dramatically thanks to one resource: oil.
Scott Gomez playing for the ECHL’s Alaska Aces in 2012. Image by: Getty Images
Alaska’s economy is driven by oil revenues – nearly 85 percent of the state’s budget comes from that industry and recently, crude has taken a dive. Compared to five years ago, the price of oil on the market has been slashed in half, from roughly $100 a barrel to $50. The price of natural gas has also gone down in the past few years.
All of that is bad news, obviously, and it affects nearly everything in the state – including leisure dollars. So even though hockey is a big passion, the ECHL’s Aces have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in sponsorship money and season ticket sales in the past few years, while attendance also crashed.
Oil revenues were also the impetus for the state budget fears that threatened the two NCAA teams.
“It was stressful for everybody,” Thomas said. “Alaska is very dependent on oil revenue and with oil staying at a low price, the financial issues became very real.”
For Kenai River, realignment in the NAHL – which has expanded to almost every corner of the continental U.S. by now – also hurt the bottom line. Travel costs are a huge burden on Alaska teams and the Brown Bears just couldn’t keep up as the geography around them shifted.
Kenai River used to have Fairbanks and an NAHL team in Wasilla to play division games against, plus two West Coast squads. This year, however, most of their other divisional foes were in Minnesota or Wisconsin – not to mention games against squads from Massachusetts and Pennsylvania that didn’t exist a couple years ago.
The unfortunate thing is, that same travel is one of the reasons Parayko loved his college experience with Alaska-Fairbanks.
“Every second week we were travelling for eight hours in the air and we had such a close bond as teammates because we got to do that,” he said. “We were gone from Tuesday to Sunday, so we were a real tight-knit group.”
There’s also the rivalry between the Nanooks and Seawolves, which culminates every year with the Governor’s Cup. This season, the Nanooks came out on top, but the games between the two college factions are always cause for local celebration.
“Alaskans love everything Alaska,” Thomas said. “The only time it’s regional is athletics. It’s kinda like being a Leafs fan when the Senators come to town – you gotta be careful what jersey you’re wearing.”
The Nanooks now head off to the WCHA conference tournament, while the Seawolves’ season is finished. But as a consolation prize, Alaska-Anchorage did see standout sophomore power forward Mason Mitchell sign an NHL contract with the Washington Capitals soon thereafter.
“Alaska is very dependent on oil revenue and with oil staying at a low price, the financial issues became very real.”
Mitchell hails from Alberta, just like Parayko and Calgary Flames netminder Chad Johnson, two rival Nanooks alumni. Along with local boys Gomez (who played his development hockey in the BCHL and WHL, away from home) and Joey Crabb, another Alaskan hero is Mike Peluso, the Minnesota kid who played for the Seawolves in the mid-1980s before his Stanley Cup-winning NHL career.
According to Thomas, a lot of folks in Alaska come from elsewhere and are embraced by the locals wholeheartedly: everybody has a story of how they got there. And once they get up to Alaska, the experience is like no other.
“Families would take me hunting or fishing with them,” Parayko said. “You’re right in the mountains for hikes – things you couldn’t do at other colleges.”
With Anchorage located right on the water, some of the natural sights are just incredible to conceive of.
“The salmon runs,” Thomas said. “You’re talking 200,000 sockeye salmon going into the mouth of the river every day.”
If you prefer Halibut fishing, the nearby town of Homer is the place to go. Thomas said he does a ton of camping, while a lack of roads in the remote parts of the state gives folks the chance to take a small plane ride and land on a glacier. The outdoors is intrinsically linked to the culture.
“It’s a mass exodus to the wilderness in the summer,” Thomas said.
But the winters are still about hockey. Hopes around Alaska are that the oil industry turns around and under a new Republican White House, there won’t be any opposition to that idea. If the economy rebounds, the NCAA squads won’t have to fear for their future and perhaps another NAHL team will sprout up.
Alaska may see nothing but darkness for long stretches, but hopefully for hockey in the state, that beaming sun will rise again soon.