If you do not recognize the Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves when they take the ice this season, then John Hill will have succeeded in at least part of his plan.
Even if you are familiar with the players, but wonder what they’re doing wearing jerseys with the UAA logo on them, part of Hill’s work is done.
One of the biggest tasks ahead of Hill as he embarks on his first collegiate head coaching job is to take everything that’s been written about his team and throw it in the garbage can.
The sooner he and his players move on, the better, as far as he’s concerned.
So while it’s a long shot the Seawolves will make the kind of improvements in the standings that will shock the college hockey world, Hill has taken it upon himself to seemingly reinvent the wheel in Anchorage.
If everything goes according to Hill’s plan, the Seawolves will take their offense to a new level this season. You can make as many jokes as you want about how a junior team could best them in most offensive categories, but Hill is serious.
Anchorage will play an up-tempo game, he says, using the team speed he inherited as its foundation.
“When we don’t have the puck we’re going to pressure the puck, and when we do have the puck we’re going to try to play puck-possession hockey,” said Hill, a former assistant under Don Lucia at Minnesota and Colorado College. “I think it’ll probably be a higher tempo than they’re used to.
“I know they’re looking forward to a shift in the philosophy of how we’re going to play on the ice. The one thing this team does have is team speed, and we’re going to utilize it.”
There is quite a difference, however, in saying you’re going to bring more offense into the game and making it happen on the ice. Hill said he started the process by showing his players a video early in the team’s offseason meetings.
It was a video on attack options. And yes, as radical as it sounds for the Seawolves, it did involve defensemen jumping up into the play.
“I told them, when you’re out there skating, look to do these things because it’s how we’re going to encourage you guys to play,” Hill said. “I think they feel like maybe they’ve been harnessed a little bit, and maybe they haven’t had a chance to develop as much as they would have if they had more freedom on ice.
— New UAA coach John Hill, on his philosophy of play
“How they’re going to play, I don’t know. I hope that we will be better than the [2.3] goals per game they scored last year. I hope the power-play percentage will be higher than the 12 percent it was last year. I know that change isn’t easy, but change is good. And I think this will be good for our program.”
While the change is a big one from the Dean Talafous era, which ended with a 7-24-5 record last season, Hill and his staff have the instant credibility with the players that comes only from being there.
Each member of the coaching staff is a former Seawolves player. Hill was a member of the school’s first teams in the early 1980s, while assistants Martin Bakula and Jack Kowal played at UAA in the ’90s. And for the first time, the Seawolves feature a goaltending coach in volunteer Chad Meyhoff, another Seawolves alum.
“I think our kids can relate to the message we’re trying to get across to them as to what it takes to be a Seawolf and what this program is going to be about,” Hill said. “And it gives them a link to the past.”
One of the minor changes that goes a long way to indicate the depths to which things have changed in Anchorage in such a short time is in the jerseys. The Seawolves will wear green on the road instead of the black that has been the norm for years.
When you change from the ground up, everything gets touched.
“To me, it’s time for a change,” Hill said. “Along with the coaching change, the kids see the change in the uniforms and a change in the philosophy. Hopefully, it’ll help elevate their passion for the game.”
As much as the Seawolves can talk about a change in philosophy, they still have to take it to the ice. Needless to say, the team’s talent level hasn’t risen significantly from the one that finished ninth in the WCHA last season.
UAA, however, has at least one offensive line that it can count on. The trio of Mike Scott, Steve Cygan and Greg Zaporzan returns, with each a senior. Hill said he’ll keep the group together, which will provide some stability up front.
But Hill is searching for some more scorers. He envisions his four lines consisting of the Scott-Cygan-Zaporan combo at the top, a second line of scorers, a checking third line and a fourth group he calls an energy line.
He has ideas for the checking and energy lines, but he’s waiting for some scorers to step forward.
Though their scoring power was limited, but Seawolves may really miss departed forwards Jesse Unklesbay, Pete Talafous and Reggie Simon.
The other major concern for Hill is UAA’s goaltending, which posted disappointing statistics last season. Chris King was the top netminder with a 3.20 goals against average and a sloppy .863 save percentage. Kevin Reiter backed him up with a 5.55 goals against and a abysmal .807 save percentage.
The first thing Hill told the goaltenders is that there was no top goaltender going into this season. Whoever wins the No. 1 spot will have to earn it.
“They feel like they’ve got something to prove,” Hill said. “Chris started out on fire last year and as the season progressed, his numbers went down. He’s aware of it too. Kevin is just looking for an opportunity.”
Hill is confident, meanwhile, that the goaltenders will benefit from having Meyhoff on the staff.
“I think Chad will play an important role in their development and their confidence,” he said. “I think those guys are kind of begging for a little bit of help.”
At defense, look for Matt Shasby to be the most likely candidate to lead a new offensive surge from the blue line. Eric Lawson and Tyler Schnell possess some offensive traits as well, while Corey Hessler, Steve Suihkonen and newcomer Lee Green are stay-at-home defensemen.
The Recruits: To the Future
With only two recruits — Green and forward Ryan Young, Hill has his sights set on the future and his first true recruiting class. He’s looking directly at western Canada.
“We want to concentrate on North America,” said Hill, whose team also features a pair of freshmen from the Czech Republic, Pavel Hlavacek and Martin Stuchlik. “I feel that this program has gotten away from western Canada. In the past, when we had successful teams, you had a blend of western Canadians and Americans.”
Hill also said it’s imperative to keep the best local talent in Alaska. For years, the stars — Brian Swanson and Ty Conklin, for example — got away.
“We’ve got to seal up the borders here,” Hill said. “We’ve got to keep these kids home.”
The Schedule: Long Stretches
One of Hill’s first tests will come against defending national champion Boston College, on the second night of the Nye Frontier Classic in Anchorage.
The games in that tournament are the only non-conference games the Seawolves play against teams not from Alaska. After a series at Alaska-Fairbanks on Oct. 19 and 20, UAA plays 28 straight games against WCHA teams before ending the regular season at home against the Nanooks.