Only one thing is guaranteed for the UAA hockey program: this season. Any games after that are still in jeopardy, but the Seawolves are doing what they can to put up the blinders and lock in on the 2016-17 campaign.
“We have to focus on what we can control, and that is winning hockey games,” junior captain Matt Anholt said.
The Green and Gold look to have a resurgence after a disappointing performance last year, one that started with a lot of promise. They came out of the gates with a 5-1-1 record and turned many heads among Division I audiences. However, concluding the season 3-13-0 during the final 16 games did not help with conversations about the future of the program. While many within the community, and the state as a whole, discuss the possible outcome of what lies beyond this season, the player’s mindsets do not extend further than the end of this year.
“It has almost been a rallying cry amongst the boys; keep it in the house, play for the guy next to you, and use this as motivation,” Anholt said, who finished second on the team in scoring during the 2015-16 season. “We do not care what other people think or what we are going to do in the future, we are playing for this year.”
The Seawolves know they cannot be the same team they were a year ago when they finished dead last on the power play and averaged more penalty minutes per game than any other team in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. With seven freshmen on the roster, the returners are looking forward to meshing with the new guys and see them contribute throughout the season.
“We have a lot of freshmen and they are looking energetic, they are looking good out here. We are pretty optimistic about the start of the season at least,” senior forward Dylan Hubbs said.
One bright spot last season is returning in front of the net for his junior year, goaltender Olivier Mantha. Mantha was named the team’s MVP for the second straight season last year, and currently holds the best save percentage in UAA’s history. He is also eager to see what the fresh faces can do to bring the Seawolves back to the playoffs for the first time in three years.
“It is going to be good see what the new guys are capable of, get some new combinations for lines, and just get back to game-speed, ” Mantha said.
Another notable player stepping back on the ice for UAA is forward Tad Kozun, who punched in a team-high 13 goals last year. The Seawolves will also be returning their two highest-scoring defensemen Chase Van Allen, who was appointed the assistant captain, and junior Jarrett Brown.
After being banged up for much of the season last year, several key roles will be coming back healthy this season. Bouncing back from injuries are winger Mason Mitchell, who tallied 12 points in 19 games, and Cam Amantea after playing only five games last season due to shoulder surgery. Newcomers who are expected to make a splash on the offensive side are twins Nathan and Jonah Renouf.
For UAA’s first regular season game, they will be taking on the Minnesota Gophers, a team that is ranked 13th in the nation in the preseason USCHO.com Division I Men’s Poll. Setting the tone early in the season could influence some of the decisions made in the near future.
“If we can come out and play the way we are capable of performing, we are going to able to kind of do our part in this whole fight to keep hockey,” head coach Matt Thomas said. “The greatest thing about collegiate sports is that playoffs start day one of the season. Really what that first game is about is trying to find your chemistry.” Thomas said.
The people within the hockey program are not just all talk when they say things are going to change, they went the extra mile, literally, to make the most of the off-season. The majority of the players cut their summers short and flew back to Anchorage much earlier than required so they could work out individually and get a head start on bonding with the team.
“We have boys becoming men, physically. One of our issues the last couple years has been our overall strength.” Thomas, who is entering his fourth season as head coach, said. “The people in our strength and condition department really deserve a tip of the hat.”
There are many unanswered questions in regards to the program, and only time will tell the results. Whatever the outcome may be, the Seawolves will have to put their puck where their mouth is this season.