Few if any other figures in the world of hockey are going through as complex a transition as the one Matt Thomas currently faces.
To hear him speak with palpable excitement regarding his new role as the head coach at Alaska-Anchorage, though, he wouldn’t have his current situation working any other way.
That said, the 37-year-old’s official first day as the Seawolves’ bench boss won’t arrive until July 1, and he’s facing one last major hurdle before heading up to The Last Frontier.
Namely, selling off most of his family’s possessions ahead of the Thomases’ move to Anchorage.
Until June 30, the family’s patriarch also still has to wear his older hat as the head coach of the Stockton (Calif.) Thunder of the mid-level professional ECHL. To make their move away from the contiguous United States easier, then, all the family’s non-essential belongings have to go.
“When you’ve got a young family, you don’t realize how many things [your family] accumulates, and I’ve got enough toys probably to put a whole daycare together, but it’s been exciting,” Thomas said.
“It’s been a unique set of challenges just trying to figure out how we do the relocation element, so we’ve decided to sell all our belongings apart from things that obviously weren’t for sale in our minds so that we wouldn’t have to ship too much stuff up there.”
The former Rochester Institute of Technology captain and Maine assistant coach will head to Anchorage alone at first. His wife Andrea and their two young sons will first visit family in Toronto before reuniting with Matt in August in Alaska’s most populous city.
The Thomases’ eldest son, Devlin, is 3½ years old. Devlin’s younger sibling Gavin is 2.
The youth of the Ontarian’s family, Thomas said, was an asset in his decision to take over at UAA.
“My family is young and thus very mobile right now — the kids aren’t in high school wanting to finish out and graduate with their friends or anything like that,” Thomas said.
“I asked our 3½ year old, ‘Where are we moving to?’ and he says, ‘Alaska!’ I think he thinks it’s just the store around the corner or the park or something. I don’t think he really knows what ‘Alaska’ means other than that he likes saying the word.
“My whole family’s going to come up for sure, and that’s one of the reasons I’m switching gears and getting out of professional hockey: I want to lessen the burden on my family.”
Thomas will leave the Thunder after five seasons at the helm in which his team never missed the ECHL playoffs. In the 2012-13 season, Stockton reached the league’s postseason championship series before seeing the Reading Royals win the Kelly Cup in five games of a best-of-seven test.
Before taking the reins in Stockton on Dec. 30, 2008, Thomas had prior ECHL head coaching experience with first the Atlantic City Boardwalk Bullies and then the Fresno Falcons.
What also attracted Thomas to UAA is the challenge of restoring the reputation of a Seawolves hockey program whose last NCAA tournament appearance came in 1992 and which has suffered particularly hard times since the 2012-13 season ended.
On March 29, the university fired former head coach Dave Shyiak following a dismal 2012-13 campaign in which the Seawolves finished 4-25-7 overall and 1-20-3 in their final 24 outings.
Shyiak never had a winning season in his eight at UAA, and his team finished at the bottom of the WCHA in both of his final two campaigns behind the bench.
Things soon went from bad to worse. On May 1, former UAA player Mickey Spencer sent an e-mail to the University of Alaska regents alleging that Shyiak struck another player, Nick Haddad, with a hockey stick during an on-campus practice session in 2011.
Steve Cobb, UAA’s athletic director at the time, was fired May 29 amid the fallout.
The public didn’t seem to have much faith in where the hockey program was heading, either. Over the course of the 2012-13 season, the Seawolves had an average announced home attendance of 2,792, which is 44 percent of the capacity at Anchorage’s municipal 6,206-seater Sullivan Arena.
Thomas is familiar, however, with another hockey team in Anchorage that gives Sullivan Arena’s ticket-takers much more of a workout than UAA’s fan traffic has.
The ECHL’s Alaska Aces have been more successful by far, having won two Kelly Cups — in 2005 and 2011 — six division championships and three Western Conference championships.
All of those accolades have been earned since the start of the 2000-01 ECHL season.
Winning sells, and the Aces have had a much easier time putting butts in the Sullivan Arena seats than UAA has. The Aces’ average announced home attendance during the 2012-13 season was 4,783.
“I will tell you that the Sullivan Arena is a great arena when there are people in it,” Thomas said. “And it’s the hardest arena in the ECHL to go and play in because the Alaska Aces have been able to sell that place out consistently.
“It really reminds me of my time at the University of Maine, and there aren’t a lot of people that like to go into the Alfond Arena in Maine because it’s an intimidating atmosphere and it’s a loud building. It’s tough to play in, and I know what the Sullivan can look like with that commitment and people rallying around the team.
“Everyone wants to go watch a winning team, but there are a lot of people ready to support UAA with some changes, and they’re excited about it.”
When asked why he took the UAA job despite the rough shape the Seawolves hockey program has been in, Thomas pointed directly to what he’s seen as a redoubled effort from the university and the local community to the program to which he was officially handed the proverbial keys on June 18.
“They want to see change, and they want to see the success come from their renewed commitment, so that’s exciting for me,” Thomas said. “The timing of taking over a program couldn’t be better with the changes that college hockey is experiencing. New conferences, including one for the WCHA, and just a new opportunity to start fresh.
“The timing of everything and the familiarity Anchorage has with the ECHL with a team in the same building made this move seem right. It felt right, and it’s good to see it’s worked out exactly like I hoped it would.”
No one would suggest Thomas won’t have his hands full at UAA. He does, however, feel ready for the challenge that awaits him in Anchorage once his time in Stockton comes to an end.
“At some point, all of us have to face up to the competitive nature of just coaches and hockey players and all athletes: We’re looking for new challenges and something that can challenge us to see how good we can be. That’s what it was for me,” Thomas said.
“Obviously UAA hasn’t had the success that any program would like, but am I naive to think I can go up there and change that? Only time will tell. But to me, I believe I can be the one to go up there and make a difference, but that’s the competitor in me, and that’s my makeup, and I truly believe it.
“I believe I can go in and do the job. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be taking the job. [The UAA job] doesn’t scare me, the lack of winning seasons and all that kind of stuff. That doesn’t intimidate me.”