Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither, surely, was Anchorage.
But today, immediate results are a desire, if not a demand, especially in the sports world. The long, slow rebuilding process is about as popular as a toll booth.
So, as first impressions go, John Hill’s was seemingly right on target. In his debut season as the head coach at Alaska-Anchorage, he fulfilled his promise to make the Seawolves an interesting team to watch.
He turned the players loose — or so it seemed in relation to the Dean Talafous era — to take some chances, go for it on offense and see what happens.
A mid-1980s North Dakota team they weren’t, but the Seawolves last season showed the potential to rise out of their customary ninth or 10th spot in the league standings for good.
Now, the hard part for Hill and UAA: They have to do it all over again.
Building is one thing; sustaining is another. The Seawolves can go one of two ways this season:
Cracking the top five would be a monumental step for the Seawolves. Winning a WCHA playoff game would be bigger (they’ve never done so), but that’s looking down the road.
Hill knows if his team is going to make the next step, the place to do it is Sullivan Arena.
“I think you need to win three out of four games at home,” Hill said. “We can’t split at home. And when you go on the road, you need to split or you need to make sure you get some points every time you head out on the road. Maybe it’s a tie or you get a split or maybe you get fortunate and get three points.
“It’s hard to win on the road in our league, and we need to make Sullivan Arena a tough place for teams to come in and play.”
Saying so and doing so have always been two different things for UAA. In credit to Hill, he said he was going to change the way things were done and he did so in his first season.
But even he’ll admit sometimes a first season is deceiving. There’s usually a new energy from players after a coaching change. The trick and the challenge is to keep that momentum going through this season and the ones that follow.
The focal point this season is Matt Shasby. The second-team all-conference selection last season developed his offensive game to go along with tough defensive play.
His 27 points were good for second on the team, but there’s still room for him to improve on offense, and much of it comes in the category Hill is trying to preach to the team as a whole: taking chances.
“Matt’s a great skater, and with the open ice we have in the buildings in our league, he can beat the forecheck,” Hill said. “He used to look pass first, but when he gets the puck at the blue line, I think he has to think shot.”
The Seawolves may have an all-America candidate on the blue line, but they also have some turnover to account for. They list eight defensemen on their roster and four of them are freshmen.
Hill said he expects freshmen Matt Hanson and Spence Gilchrist to step in for the departed Eric Lawson and Corey Hessler.
Up front, there might be even more crucial spots that need to be filled. The entire top line of Steve Cygan, Mike Scott and Gregg Zaporzan has moved on, leaving a gap in the scoring. They were the top three forwards last season.
Last season’s second line, Dallas Steward, Petr Chytka and Vladimir Novak, will move up and each is expected to advance his production.
“All three guys have come back in great shape,” Hill said, “and that tells me their attitude is right.”
The Seawolves, however, will need a second line to put up a fair number of goals. They have three seniors looking to finish their collegiate career with a bang on offense — Dan Gilkerson, Morgan Roach and Joe Garvin. John Hopson also has the potential to play a key role after leading freshmen with 15 points last season.
The goaltending situation is unchanged from last season. Kevin Reiter, who played the majority of the minutes last season, will share time with Chris King. They’ll split an exhibition game and the first two weekends, and Hill then will have a decision to make.
“After those five games, if one of them is playing much better than the other, [he] would probably get the Friday start on Nov. 1 against Duluth,” Hill said. “And if we win and they look sharp, we may go back with that goalie on Saturday. But if they’re both playing well and it’s working, I can see us rotating them all season because it seemed to work last year.”
As much of a success as last season is considered, the Seawolves are quick to point out they had three goals and didn’t meet one.
They wanted to win the Nye Frontier Classic in their back yard but came up a point short. They wanted to take hold of the Governor’s Cup, the prize for the winner of the season series between UAA and Alaska-Fairbanks, but lost three of four meetings. They wanted to make the Final Five, but lost 6-1 and 1-0 to Colorado College in the first round.
The same three goals are on the table again, there for the earning, not the taking.