John Hill is no stranger to adversity with his Alaska-Anchorage team. Two years ago, an NCAA violation in the usage of textbook scholarship money leading to the suspension of a number of players was only one rough patch in a 1-28-7 season.
But the Anchorage native and former Seawolves captain is also familiar with what it takes to bring his team out of such disastrous situations. Last season wasn’t stellar, but his team attained two of its three goals, including the one that got the most attention: earning the program’s first trip to the WCHA Final Five.
That should have been the story line going into this season — how the UAA players were going to take that experience and grow from it. But now Hill and his staff are dealing with what may end up being the single most difficult situation they’ve faced since taking over in 2001.
The offseason locker-room altercation that sent sophomore Brett Arcand-Kootenay to surgery and senior captain Lee Green to jail sent shock waves through the team and the staff.
“It’s much more difficult than I thought it was going to be,” Hill said, “and it’s been very stressful.”
Green was charged with second-degree assault after police said he punched Arcand-Kootenay in a Sept. 12 dispute over a training run. The Soldotna, Alaska, native also was stripped of his captaincy and was suspended from the team’s exhibition game in his hometown and the first three games of the regular season.
Such an incident could split a team in half, but Hill said that hasn’t happened.
“Lee has got a lot of support from his teammates,” he said. “They know he made a mistake, but they also know what he stands for as a person, as a member of this hockey team and as a leader. For Brett, we’re supporting him as he tries to heal up. I’m hoping for a happy ending, in which they both are able to come back and join the circle and we’re able to move forward.
“I think this is quite a ways from being over, and we just can’t say, well, we’re going to move on. It’s not that easy. It’s a significant issue and we’re just doing the best we can under the circumstances. We have the support of our administration, our athletic department and we’re going to support each other. Because it’s not easy.”
Hill has kept the team informed on the situation while trying to keep their minds focused on what they need to be doing in class and in preparation for the start of the season. It’s a situation that has taken some of the luster off the program breakthrough accomplished last March.
By beating Wisconsin in three games in a first-round playoff series, the Seawolves not only won their first WCHA playoff game ever, they did what some thought they never would do.
The sense of excitement mixed with relief mixed with determination that was apparent from Hill and the Seawolves right after claiming that historic series victory carried through to the Final Five, where they won the play-in game over Colorado College before losing the semifinal and third-place games.
“I think a lot of people probably in the back of their mind thought we could never make it to the Final Five,” said Hill, who noted that the congratulatory calls that started almost instantly after the final horn that Sunday night in Madison continued throughout the summer. “It’s always going to be tough, but we can do it.”
With that taste finally in their mouths, the Seawolves want more. But it won’t be easy this season without their three top scorers from last season and the two goalies that dominated the crease in the past four seasons.
Top scorer Curtis Glencross signed with Anaheim in the days following the Final Five — something that may not have happened if UAA didn’t make it that far — while No. 2 scorer Chris Fournier was ruled academically ineligible in the offseason and left school and No. 3 scorer Dallas Steward graduated.
So now the offensive responsibilities will fall on a new group, including sophomore Charlie Kronschnabel, who put up nine goals and 22 points his freshman year, and Ales Parez, who despite missing 13 games with injuries had 21 points last season.
Hill also is looking at freshmen Eric Walsky, Shea Hamilton and Chris Tarkir to make an impact in their first seasons. Still, it must be noted that even with great seasons by Glencross and Fournier a year ago, the Seawolves were ninth in the WCHA in scoring. They need consistent production from a number of players to reverse that.
UAA’s defense returns intact, but the team lost goalies Kevin Reiter and Chris King, leaving junior John DeCaro, a transfer from Ferris State, and freshman Ryan Bancroft in a wide-open battle for the top spot. A focus on reducing the opponent’s shots on goal from the 38.2 average of a year ago is a priority with a new look in goal.
With 10 defensemen on the roster, including Green and sophomore Mark Smith — both of whom are coming off good seasons — there will be a healthy battle for playing time.
Even with all the preseason distractions, the Seawolves have posted the same goals as they had last season: win the Nye Frontier Classic and the Governor’s Cup series with Alaska-Fairbanks and get to the Final Five. They did two of the three last season, missing out on the Governor’s Cup only by a shootout loss to the Nanooks.
Even if things don’t go as well as they would like at the start of the season, there’s always time to make good — just like last season.
“These are some of your goals that you’ve laid out on the table from day one, and they’re there at the end of the year,” Hill said. “So it doesn’t matter how well you’ve done up to that point. Those are the important things because those are your goals.
“It’ll be hard for us to finish in the top half because we are unproven in net and we don’t return our three leading scorers. Having said that, I think our identity is intact, and that’s that we’re going to be a very hard-working, relentless, puck-pursuing team. And I think we’re a team that has got a lot of room for growth, and I think we’ll grow as the year progresses. I think before the season’s done, we’ll make a little bit of noise.”