Two seasons ago, Alaska-Fairbanks head coach Guy Gadowsky publicly thanked two beat writers for being the only members of the media not to pick the Nanooks last in the CCHA preseason media poll.
This year, UAF is picked ninth by the press, eighth by the coaches, and Gadowsky knows that this represents real progress. “We shouldn’t forget where we came from. We’ve come a long way but we know we can go further.”
After stunning the CCHA with a fourth-place finish in 2001-02, the Nanooks struggled much of last season, unable to find the right combination of leadership, scoring, and goaltending to make UAF a going concern.
Add the emotional limbo the team suffered waiting to hear word that the bone tumor in sophomore Aaron Voros’s leg was benign, and you’ve got yourself a season that never quite came together.
Gadowsky says that 2003-04 will be different because of the strength of his nine-member senior class. “I think that can be a big difference in the CCHA, not only in terms of experience, but also in leadership.”
Perhaps that senior class and the rest of the Nanooks can pick up where they left off, almost. Before losing two games to Michigan State in the first round of the CCHA playoffs last year — one a brutal 11-1 defeat — UAF finished the regular season with a nine-game unbeaten streak (6-0-3). The late-season success was due, in part, to walk-on goaltender Keith Bartusch (2.73 GAA, .912 SV%). Gadowsky calls Bartusch “a great story.” The junior had the best numbers of any UAF netminder last year.
So there’s leadership. Voros is back. Bartusch may be for real. You can’t win if you’re up one week and down the next, and someone’s got to score some goals. Averaging 2.79 goals per game, the Nanooks were ninth in offensive production last year, and they’ll be without Blaine Bablitz, the senior who last year was tied for the team lead in goals scored (14).
“From the impressions I’ve been getting so far,” says Gadowsky, ” Ryan Campbell and Cam Keith are going to be relied upon very heavily offensively.” On the blueline, Gadowsky calls senior Felipe Larranaga “one of the most exciting to watch” in the league.
It’s hard to resist the Nanooks. With the exception of that 2001-02 team, they’re viewed as a non-threatening underdog, a team that travels great distances to play in the CCHA, the antithesis of big college sports.
It’s easy to appreciate what Gadowsky has done with a program that’s difficult to recruit to, hard to budget, and so very far away. Besides, even if you’re not a UAF fan, you want to follow them to see if that single season was some sort of fluke.
And if you like Canadians, this is your team. There are 21 Canadians on the roster, six from Alberta alone.
Any one on which Voros is playing. If he returns to form, he’ll be offensively explosive and more disciplined than he was his rookie season.
The Nanooks could be the most talented team in the league and still finish in the middle of the pack because of their travel schedule. Gadowsky and the program downplay the effects of having to hike halfway or more across North America for road games, but there’s no question that it takes its toll.
Another fly in the Alaskan ointment is the incredible inconsistency the Nanooks displayed last season. Gadowsky counters that “the intangibles” along with the senior class will dispel that little problem, but the kind of magic UAF had in 2001-02 is two years gone.