Friday, May 29, 2015

Know Your Enemy: Alaska

There are only a handful of current NCAA Division I teams that the Engineers have never beaten. There's the group of four that they've never even played (Canisius, Penn State, Nebraska-Omaha, and Northern Michigan). They haven't beaten Colorado College in seven tries. All three games against Ohio State have been ties. And then there's the host team of the Brice Alaska Goal Rush, who have only stared down RPI twice in their 30+ year modern history. This year, the Engineers head to Fairbanks to take on the Nanooks, carrying with them a pair of Swedish players who first acclimated to North American hockey in that very city just under 200 miles from the Arctic Circle.

Alaska
Nickname: Nanooks
Location: Fairbanks, AK
Founded: 1917
Conference: WCHA
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: 2010
Last Frozen Four: None
Coach: Dallas Ferguson (8th season)
2014-15 Record: 19-13-2 (14-12-2 WCHA, 4th place)
Series: UAF leads, 1-0-1
First Game: November 28, 1986 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: Never
Last UAF win: November 28, 1986 (Troy, NY)

2015-16 game: October 17, 2015 (Fairbanks, AK)

Key players: D Josh Atkinson, sr.; F Alec Hajdukovich, sr.; F Nolan Huysmans, sr.; F Tyler Morley, sr.; F Marcus Basara, jr.; F Shawn Hochhausen, jr.; G Davis Jones, jr.; F Brandon Morley, jr.; D Zach Frye, so.; F Peter Krieger, so; F Tayler Munson, so.; F Austin Vieth, so.; F Jasen Fernsler, fr.; D Nik Koberstein, fr.; F Chad Staley, fr.

"Alaska" is actually the University of Alaska Fairbanks if we're getting hypertechnical. It's a source of some friction between the younger but larger UAA that the school chose to drop the name of their city when it came to identifying their sports teams in 2006 (leading to the somewhat demeaning sobriquet "UA_"). The move emphasized UAF's position as the University of Alaska system's flagship campus, as it was established well before statehood as the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines, opening for classes in 1922. Understandably, it was a fairly small school, as more people lived in Troy at the time than lived in all of the vast territory of Alaska.

Considering the small size of the population base and the very small size of the school - there was a grand total of one graduate in 1923 - it's pretty impressive that the hockey program at UAF got its start in 1926. There are plenty of teams in the Lower 48 who can't claim a lineage that goes back that far. UAF was certainly not your average college hockey team. Given that there were no other colleges for well over a thousand miles (and before the advent of improved road or air travel), the school's hockey team, when they assembled one, typically played other amateur teams from the Fairbanks area.

After a four-game season in 1926, the school's team returned in 1933, playing through the Great Depression and into 1941, shuttering for World War II and returning in 1950. The squad had an on-and-off existence throughout the 50s, not getting any firm establishment until Bill Daltri took over the program in 1960. Daltri coached the Nanooks for three years, leading them to 14 wins in 16 games in 1961, the first season in which the team played more than six games in a single campaign since they had a 16-game sechedule in 1933. Overall, Daltri led the Nanooks to a 32-3-1 record in his three years as coach, including a perfect 8-0 record in 1963. Following Daltri's reign, UAF returned to playing shorter schedules with less success for the remainder of the 1960s and into the 1970s.

The modern era of Nanooks hockey undoubtedly begins in the same season as their arch-rivals from Anchorage: 1980-81. While the Seawolves found success playing in the Anchorage Senior League, the Nanooks had a dreadful first two seasons. Not only did Fairbanks lose all eight games they played against Anchorage, they lost all 22 games on their schedule, and went 2-21-0 the following season. By 1983, however, coach Ric Schafer had the squad pointed in the right direction. In the three years leading up to the founding of the Great West Hockey Conference, UAF had three winning seasons and a pair of 20-win campaigns. He guided the team to two more 20-win seasons in the GWHC before he left to take over the program at Notre Dame.

Schafer's replacement was a young coach starting his very first head coaching gig: Don Lucia. The current leader of the Minnesota Golden Gophers got his start in Fairbanks in 1987, leading the Nanooks to their first and only GWHC title in 1988 and guiding the team to .500 or better records in five of his six seasons, including a number of years where the team were independents again after the GWHC's demise.

Lucia left for Colorado College in 1993, shortly after the independent bid to the NCAA tournament was scotched without the Nanooks having ever achieved it, always having been blocked by their nemesis to the south, UAA. The team did, however, become associate members of the CCHA that season, finally slotting into an established college hockey conference for the first time. They became full members in time for the 1995-96 season.

The CCHA wasn't nearly as dog-eat-dog as the WCHA, so the Nanooks' experience wasn't quite as difficult as UAA's was in that league, but they still struggled to make an impact. In the mid-to-late 1990s, UAF lost at least 20 games in each of Dave Laurion's five years behind the bench within the CCHA.

UAF's first major nibble of success came after the accession of another young, dashing coach working his first head coaching gig in college hockey. Guy Gadowsky took a couple of seasons to get the Nanooks back on track - he won only 15 games in his first two seasons - but in 2002 UAF had their first 20-win campaign since joining the CCHA. They finished in the top half of the league standings for the first time with a 4th place showing and they advanced to the CCHA's Super Six tournament in Detroit, where they fell 6-5 in overtime against Ohio State.

Gadowsky's star was rising, but he took that star to Princeton (and eventually, Penn State) in 2004. Tavis MacMillan, an alum who had been associated with the team for over a decade, took over and brought the Nanooks to the CCHA Semifinals in 2005, but resigned due to family concerns in 2007. That led into a single tumultuous season under the tutelage of Doc DelCastillo, who eventually resigned before being fired thanks in part to an alleged team revolt and allegations of sexual harassment.

Current head coach Dallas Ferguson took over from DelCastillo in 2008, and in just his second season behind the bench, guided the Nanooks to their first ever NCAA tournament bid, making Alaska the next-to-last team from the "Big Four" conferences at the time to play in the national tournament for the first time (Union, who would become the last in 2011). The Nanooks fell 3-1 to Boston College in Worcester, in a game that was tied at one heading into the third period.

That experience definitely marked a high point for Fairbanks, but they've had their struggles ever since. The CCHA dissolved in 2013, requiring the team to move into the WCHA with UAA, a rival which frequently supplied them with the lion's share of their non-conference games through the Governor's Cup. The team hasn't been awful in his first two WCHA seasons - they managed a 4th-place finish this past season in a year where the league had two of the best teams in the nation - but last year was in many ways a low point for the team as well.

In November 2014, the NCAA handed down fairly severe sanctions to the school's athletic programs, including the hockey team, for fielding ineligible players between 2007 and 2012. The hockey team itself had allowed six different players to compete despite having been academically ineligible for various reasons. The NCAA wiped away all wins during the impacted period, leaving Ferguson, who had been close to becoming the school's all-time winning coach, with only a handful of wins from 2013 and 2014, and technically erasing the school's lone NCAA tournament appearance.

The Nanooks were also banned from post-season eligibility for 2015, leaving them unable to compete in the WCHA Tournament despite that fourth-place finish. They've also been docked a scholarship for the next two seasons to come.

By some metrics, one could say that coming into this season, the Nanooks are the hottest team in the country. That's kind of weak, since they'll be coming into their next game off a seven-month layover, but Alaska was unbeaten in their last eight games in a row to end the year. The only other team that didn't lose their last game was the national champions, Providence, and they only ended their year on a four-game winning streak.

The Nanooks had some pretty good balance to their attack last season. They return six different players who had at least five goals, including both of their top two scorers in Morley and Basara, who had 15 and 12 respectively. The team platooned goaltenders last year as Davis roughly split time in net with Sean Cahill, who graduated. That should leave things solely to Davis this season, though Alaska will surely be looking for an improvement on his .898 save percentage. If he doesn't, the team could be vulnerable defensively as they seek to replace three regular defensemen from last season, two who graduated and an All-American, Colton Parayko, who signed an NHL contract. Parayko would have been a senior this year, but instead the Nanooks will lose their lone NHL draftee.

That one loss certainly will hurt the team, but by and large, the other elements that made them function last season and finished the season strong will be back. They're certainly rebounding from the hit they took last year off the ice, and much like UAA, the Nanooks have a bit more room to operate in the new WCHA than they had before the big shakeup. We've seen before how winning, even against weaker teams, tends to beget winning, even being competitive against stronger teams. That could well be true just coming into the RPI game, as Alaska will be coming off a game in Anchorage against Arizona State and a game the previous night against American International. One would have to expect Fairbanks to be favored in both of those games, and they'll be the home team on Saturday night against the Engineers as well.

Once again, RPI will be presented with a team whose defense isn't going to be among the very stingiest in the nation, and a growing young corps of forwards - especially, perhaps, Viktor Liljegren and Jesper Ohrvall, who will get a bit of a homecoming as former Fairbanks Ice Dogs - will need to find ways to take advantage in order to be successful. With the larger ice and the home crowd, give the edge to Alaska, but if the Engineers play their game (and, as usual, get strong play between the pipes), there's no reason they couldn't knock the full list of Division I teams they've never beaten down to seven.

Look at that. Got all the way through and didn't even mention this.

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