Recruiting challenges for UAA Hockey
The game of hockey was originally played in the Canadian winter on frozen lakes and ponds. Ever since its development, the game of hockey has been associated as a winter sport. While it may be a winter sport to spectators, its an all year round commitment for players and coaches alike.
UAA’s hockey coaches are no exception. Just because the hockey season ends in March doesn’t mean the planning for a WCHA Division I mens ice hockey team does as well. Every year, unlike pro teams or semi pro teams, college level programs are dealt the card of filling the roles of graduate athletes. This year alone, UAA hockey is losing four senior athletes, including the 2015-16 season point leader, Blake Tatchell.
With the challenges of recruiting players every year weighing on the coaches of UAA, having a losing record only increases the difficulty to compete with top tier division I programs. The Seawolves stayed competitive at the beginning of the season but encountered an injury ridden second half that left three of their starters sidelined. This resulted in the fall to the last place spot in the WCHA for the second straight year.
“Minnesota, Boston and Michigan. Teams like those guys have top level high school programs they can watch every weekend, a lot of Alaskan kids are leaving to play in other places,” Assistant Coach Josh Ciocco said. “We would love to have a player pool in town to watch, but its not something that’s offered right now.”
These challenges force the coaches to recruit year round, even on their trips during their hockey season. Due to the expenses to travel from Alaska and watch potential prospects play, UAA often uses the team travel to see as many of the prospects as they can. The team has to send Ciocco or assistant coach Louis Mass to attend junior or high school games in nearby areas of travel in order to seek future talent.
The team uses their scholarships to entice players to the team and to improve. 18 full scholarships are offered by the school to distribute between the hockey teams roster that will typically consist of around 20-30 athletes. The scholarships are awarded between the players based on multiple different facets of their games such as play making ability, competitiveness, and leadership. As the players continue to develop whether on ice or off ice, they are again rewarded by the program with additional scholarship benefits in an attempt to keep the players competitive on the ice and in the classrooms.
“A good example of that is Austin Sevalrud, our captain, I’m pretty sure he entered the team on a walk on with minimal scholarship numbers, and he’s graduating this year with a full scholarship,” Ciocco said.
A lot of the scouting done by UAA consists of watching live games online and reviewing stat sheets on sites like hockeydb.com and eliteprospects.com. The need for this is a result of a shallow hockey market in Anchorage. The coaches will frequently watch players on live feeds of games, where they will determine whether or not the player is worth follow up.
In addition to scouting online, head coach Matt Thomas heavily relies on relationships he has made through his previous playing and coaching career, Thomas uses these contacts and trusted hockey minds to give insight into potential prospects he may have never heard about otherwise.
“Its a special thing about the game, everyone is always looking to help the development of players,” Thomas said.
Thomas also makes sure he gives Alaskan players that have the ability to be difference makers on the team a look from UAA recruiters. He also touched on the difficulty of chasing Alaskan players outside of Anchorage’s hockey market in order to give the players the adequate opportunity they may deserve.
“We understand that this is an affordable team for Alaskans, we try and get them the looks, we follow them playing outside, but its easier for teams in areas they play in to recruit them,” Thomas said.
Staying competitive in the league has been challenging for UAA as of late, but the teams’ coaches are constantly staying busy in an attempt to get back into the standings. The types of players that UAA targets aren’t all goal scorers.
“I don’t go out and search for the next Gretzky, we look for what the team needs,” Thomas said. “We’re lucky to have a guy like Josh. He’s the best at what he does.”
Last year’s addition of Mass, who grew up in Anchorage’s market understands the pull to leave Anchorage in search of better hockey. Mass was brought in by Thomas who stated that Mass’ knowledge of the town and in state hockey relationships are important to the future development of the program. Mass played college hockey at Bowling Green, a competitive team within UAA’s division. He was also a player and an assistant coach for the Alaska Aces, the only professional hockey team in Alaska.
“I understand the draw to outside teams, I did it, but adding the hometown element makes it sentimental,” Mass said.
UAA currently stretches their connections for players as far as Europe in search of the next batch of Seawolf hopefuls. Leagues such as the USHL, BCHL, NAHL and SPHL junior hockey leagues make up the majority of Division I hopefuls. UAA is growing out of the program’s rebuilding era and hopes to achieve added success like the first half of last season in the next two years. All three coaches agreed that their freshman and sophomore group landed high in production in comparison to other WCHA teams younger groups in the 2015-16 season, giving them hope for the future.