Problems continue for Alaska

This weekend, the Northern Michigan University hockey team is taking on Alaska-Fairbanks in the first round of the WCHA Tournament.

There are two questions lingering going into this best-of-three series, the first being if the Wildcats can avoid getting upset, and the other if this will be the last time the Nanooks come to the Berry Events Center.

Once again, the Fairbanks school and Alaska-Anchorage are both in financial trouble and both of the state’s Division I hockey programs could be on the chopping block.

Two years ago, I wrote about how falling oil prices forced their state legislature to consider three options that could’ve affected the two hockey teams.

The first one was to eliminate all the athletic programs at either one or both schools. The second was to combine all the programs into one, and the final one was to dump all the NCAA Division I programs, which would include hockey, and keep the Division II sports.

None of them were ideal, and in the end, both hockey programs were saved, but maybe not much longer.

Last month, new Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced his bold plan to fix a $1.6 billion deficit, where $134 million would be cut from the University of Alaska system’s budget for the next fiscal year.

An Anchorage Daily News February article says that it’s the largest cut in the history of their university system.

According to a February article in College Hockey News, that would cause a 41 percent downsizing of the Unrestricted General Fund, which is where the schools get the funding for many of their programs as well as the athletic departments. The article also said that the 2019 budget was $327 million and has been downsized four of the last five years.

Dunleavy’s proposal is under debate in the legislature and CHN says the final decision will be made in July. So basically, Fairbanks and Anchorage are stuck wondering if some of their sports as well as some of their academic programs will still be in operation next year.

The last couple of years haven’t been easy for either the Nanooks or the Seawolves. Fairbanks and Anchorage have both gone through three athletic directors in two years with Sterling Steward taking over in Fairbanks in August and Greg Myford become the boss at Anchorage in June.

Finding coaches has been an even more difficult task because talented prospects for the jobs are reluctant to move all the way to the Last Frontier when they might only have a program to run for a season or two.

The Nanooks decided not to bring back interim head hockey coach Lance West, who took over for Dallas Ferguson, and ended up offering the deal to Brent Brekke, a former assistant at Miami, Ohio.

Brekke said no and the Nanooks had to go with Erik Largen, who led the Nanooks back to the WCHA Tournament for the fourth straight season, this time as the No. 7 seed. The Nanooks have lost the last three years to Minnesota State in the first round.

If Alaska seems to be in a difficult situation, Anchorage’s is even worse. The Seawolves let head coach Matt Thomas’ contract expire last year and tried desperately to hire someone new, but like a desperate guy at the bar, their pickup lines didn’t catch on as they were rejected by three coaches.

Anchorage then had to settle for Matt Curley, who was coaching overseas in Austria at the time. Curley couldn’t work magic in his first year, though, as the Seawolves missed the postseason for the fifth straight year.

The Nanooks’ and Seawolves’ programs lack stability, and as a result, that could lead to problems for the WCHA.

As I mentioned in my column two years ago, the WCHA has a wide-reaching map that spreads from Alaska to Alabama. It ended up getting a large chunk of those teams after the Big Ten and National Collegiate Hockey Conference were created and the CCHA fell apart.

Minnesota State has already applied for membership in the NCHC in the past and was rejected, so if the Mavericks were eventually let into that conference and both Alaska programs were shut down, the WCHA would be reduced to seven teams.

It could make a move to get Arizona State to fill the eighth spot, which would be a decent fit since they already are in charge of disciplining the Sun Devils’ players, but it would add another long-distance trip to the conference schedule, which wouldn’t be easy financially.

And that’s what this whole mess comes down to, money. The Alaska legislature is discussing how much money it’s going to take from the University of Alaska system and the schools themselves might at some point have to ask if it’s worth having hockey teams anymore.

University of Alaska president Jim Johnsen is still trying to stay positive. In an interview last April with TV station KTVA about the Seawolves, Johnsen said “I’m confident it will be strong.” He based his opinion on the belief that the fan base would rally behind the team.

The article from KTVA said Anchorage having a hockey program cost almost $2 million for last season. The Seawolves continue to struggle badly (four wins last year and three this year) and the Nanooks aren’t that much better.

UAF made the NCAA tournament in 2010, but haven’t gotten past the first round of the CCHA or WCHA playoffs since 2011. With that lack of success, you have to wonder if it’s worth having hockey at all up there.

I’m not sure it is. It’s really expensive to operate a hockey program at Anchorage and it took quite awhile to convince a coach to move there. Not to mention, it’s probably not easy to get top-notch recruits to go all the way up there to play for teams that seem to be in danger of not existing every couple of years.

Anchorage has only finished above .500 once in the last 20 years and gotten past the first round of the playoffs twice. And I already have listed the Nanooks’ issues.

Finally, according to attendance figures online at USCHO.com, the Seawolves average only 31.6 percent of capacity in their 6,200-seat arena and the Nanooks are at 42.8 percent of their 4,300-seat facility. The passion may be there, but it seems like not enough fans want to show up.

Money seems like it will always be an issue in Alaska and you wonder how much longer each school’s hockey program can last. If the Nanooks and Seawolves can’t dodge another bullet this summer when the final budget is voted on, all we’ll have left is the memories.

Unfortunately for their fans, there aren’t that many worth remembering.

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is rstieg@miningjournal.net.