The Road Less Traveled

Much has been said about Anchorage as a place to play hockey. Too far. Too dark. Too cold.

Even more has been said about Alaska-Anchorage hockey under Dean Talafous, who took over the program at the beginning of the 1996-97 season. Too low-scoring. Too slow. Too boring.

Talafous takes umbrage at these comments. It is clear that he has a very specific idea of how his hockey program should be run, from the on-ice skills the players learn to the values and commitment to community that he strives to instill in those around him. One can’t help but sense his enthusiasm, his energy and his focus after speaking to him for just a short period of time. After he loosens up a bit and starts to get into the heart and soul of his program, he speaks with a fire in his eyes and a strength in his voice that few share.

“To be honest with you, I’m really enjoying this year, because every day is something new, something different,” Talafous says, and you can’t help but believe him. “Somebody’s learning something. Somebody’s improving. Someone feels good. It’s been a challenge, at times very trying. But I’ve learned to be patient. To sit back and observe, and actually enjoy what’s going on.”

Dean Talafous came to Alaska-Anchorage and the WCHA from NCAA Division III school Wisconsin-River Falls. Talafous was head coach at River Falls for seven seasons, where he compiled a record of 110-84-16 record. More importantly, he took a rag-tag team of players and turned them into NCAA champions. River Falls won the Division III championship in the 1993-94 season, after finishing as runner-up the previous season.

That was his second NCAA championship ring, the first coming during his playing days at the University of Wisconsin, before Talafous began a long and successful career in the NHL. The Badgers captured the title in 1973, and Talafous was named the Most Valuable Player of the tournament.

Thus, in 1994, he became one of the few to earn a championship as both a player and a coach.

The administration at Alaska-Anchorage is now hoping he can do something similar with the Seawolves. Prior to last season, there had been exactly one coach in Anchorage’s history — the legendary Brush Christiansen. Christiansen was so important to UAA hockey that the school retired a number — 79, in honor of 1979, the first year Alaska-Anchorage played varsity hockey — in his honor. He coached the Seawolves for 17 seasons, and left his imprint on every facet of Alaska-Anchorage hockey.

So how exactly does Talafous hope to make his own mark on the program? To recognize and honor all that Christiansen achieved and meant, but not to rest on what he had done? To add to the total, and leave his own mark?

“I rely on what I’ve learned the past eight, nine years at River Falls. In my mind I had created a vision for how I would run a program if I were ever put in charge,” Talafous explains. “So I had River Falls as, really, the first program [where] I was head coach.

“From my experiences — the most rewarding ones — at Wisconsin when we won the national tournament in ’73, and with the Rangers when we went to the finals of the Stanley Cup, and even back in high school when we went to the state tournament in Hastings — those were real team-oriented, disciplined, hard-working teams that really cared about each other.

“But also, teams that played the game very clean, that played within the rules and had respect for the opposition and each other. It was just real positive in my life and my teammates’. At the college level, that’s how I wanted to run a program.”

And that is exactly what he has done. Wisconsin-River Falls, under his guidance, became known as a clean, speedy, hard-working team. Penalties fell, and the number of wins rose. When he took over the Alaska-Anchorage program in 1996-97, the team set a new WCHA record for fewest penalties in a season. That, Talafous says, is most gratifying to him.

“I just believe that the first thing to be successful and to run a championship program year in and year out, you have to create a certain identity that you’re comfortable with, that’s consistent with your philosophy and who you are as a person, and all your beliefs and everything else.

“So the identity that we’re creating here is one where a team plays with class, a team that takes very [few] penalties, doesn’t retaliate, doesn’t trash-talk, doesn’t talk back to the refs — just really works hard at playing the game with good sportsmanship. It is very important.

“Kids need to learn to have self-control, and to respect others, and care about their teammates, be unselfish and work extremely hard and have discipline. Those are important qualities to learn not only if you are playing hockey, but just….Life! So not only do I want our players to learn those important qualities, but I want them to be demonstrated on the ice.

“I want us to be positive role models to youth hockey and high school hockey and people that watch the game. So its very important to me, and to our program and to our players now, that that’s what we demonstrate every time we’re on the ice and off the ice. That’s an important part of my philosophy, our makeup and the identity here.”

Setting up that identity can be a long, difficult practice. The key thing, Talafous believes, is in finding young men who buy into the program.

“When we go out and recruit, we say we want hard-working, self-motivated players. We want team-oriented, very unselfish, caring players. And we want serious students — players that understand the value of an education and work hard at it.

“We don’t recruit selling mountains and water and all kinds of promises that they are going to be pro players and that. We tell the player what we are, and that we’re looking for a special individual, and if it’s them, if its a good fit, they’ll love it here. If it’s not them, then don’t come here, because they’ll be very uncomfortable. We’re just looking for twenty, twenty-five athletes that want a real team experience.

“To be able to play within the rules, and be role models and play with discipline.

“That’s what we’re creating here. There are million different ways, and a million different identities. Everybody, I’m sure, has their own ideas how the game should be played, and how to run a program. But this is us.

“And I think that’s very important, whether its 49er football, Celtic basketball in the ’60s [or] Canadian hockey in the ’70s, they all had an identity they were very proud of.

“It’s very consistent. The names and faces change, but the program and what it stands for never does. And that’s what we’re desperately trying to create here. It’s not easy, and it takes time, but we’re trying to do it one day at a time.”

The fact of the matter is, building such a program does take time, and some people are more anxious than others for it to happen. How exactly does Talafous respond to the criticisms that the style of play he promotes is boring? That what he is trying to teach, hockey-wise, has no place in the modern era?

“Those are ignorant people. Just think about it for a second. Who won the Stanley Cup? The Detroit Red Wings. How did they play it? With class. Good sportsmanship. Very few penalties. The Yzermans, the Larionovs, the very classy, hard-working, team-oriented, low-penalized, very organized team play. They won the Stanley Cup.

“Who won it the year before? Colorado. Very classy, good sportsmanship. The Sakics, the Forsbergs. Who won it the year before? A very low-penalized Jacques Lamarre-run New Jersey. If you look at the way the Stanley Cups are played, there are a very low number of penalties. Because they can’t afford to [take more]. The teams that can play hockey within the rules win the Stanley Cups. The teams that play hockey within the rules win the NCAA tournaments.

“But for some reason, during the season we are supposed to abandon all that. I don’t think I ever have to apologize to a parent if their son comes here and he learns discipline; he learns to get along with others, he learns to care about not only his own teammates but the opposition; he learns sportsmanship, he learns self-control and he learns a work ethic, and the value of an education. I never have to apologize for that.

“But if I lived by ‘Hey, if he looks at you wrong, spear him. Run him through the glass. Don’t take a backwards step. Drop ’em when they want to challenge you. Rip the ref, ’cause its his fault. Blame this guy. Blame that guy,’ then I do have to apologize. Because I’m not taking a college student-athlete and teaching him the values that are important for him to go on and live in society.

“If I did have the same attitude that some people have about retaliation, about chopping and spearing, trying to injure players and winning with violence, then I would question myself. It would be hard to sleep at night. But because I’m trying to do what’s in the best interest of the student-athlete, and that’s the only way I make my decisions — what’s in the best interests of each athlete and of Seawolf hockey, not what Dean Talafous wants — I know that’s my motivation, I can go to bed at night and say that’s fine, we’re doing what’s right, and for the right reasons.

“That’s how I respond to those people.”

There are a lot of underclassmen on his Seawolves team — 11 freshmen and seven sophomores. When Talafous came to Anchorage, bringing his style of play with him, it alienated some of the kids already there. They hadn’t signed up to play with this man, with this style. So there was a bit of turmoil within the program, as everyone got used to Talafous and his philosophy.

Several players did not make it past that first year.

Such a change, Talafous says, is only natural. He experienced it at River Falls, and he expected to see it here, as well, especially when following a distinguished coach and man like Brush Christiansen. So part of the challenge, he says, is in dealing with many new players.

Says Talafous of the freshmen, “[There’s] a lot of teaching going on. A lot of lessons being learned. A lot of meetings. Because it’s new. We did recruit players from Bloomington-Jefferson, Duluth East, Warroad. All those are programs are winning programs, and all those coaches, the Randolphs, the Satterdowns, are disciplined, classy educators. We really want to try and get players who have been taught these things earlier, because they’ve been through good programs. But there’s still a lot of learning that goes on; there are lessons that have to be taught.

“But that’s part of coaching. That’s part of the college experience. But the fact that it’s all new, we have to kind of go from step one. This is who we are, this is what we expect. Then every time someone stumbles, we’ve got to talk about it and say ‘That’s okay. This is really how you should have answered that — this is really how you should have behaved.’

“You’ve got to have a lot of patience.

“But it’s the process. Bob Johnson, who I’ve been coached by for years, wrote me a little note when I got into coaching. He said, ‘Dean, enjoy the daily process. Don’t look so much towards the results. Enjoy coaching. Enjoy, daily, the process.’ And I’ve always remembered that.

“Some times you win more than others. If you stop enjoying the daily interaction with your players and your staff, the people in hockey, then coaching is no longer fun. You not only enjoy, like at River Falls when we were going to the NCAA tournament every year, that was fun, but you’ve also got to enjoy bringing in nine freshmen and teaching them to play the game, and get along, and work together, and have confidence and improve. That’s another part of the game. Part of coaching.”

But that’s only one part of the whole equation. Alaska has a lot of disadvantages, like the geographic isolation, the long winters and lack of people. Recruiting is difficult with such negatives, but it has to be done. And Talafous has all the angles figured out.

First, the travel issue:

“I’ve coached in the USHL. Most of these kids have played junior hockey. They get on a bus for six hours, get off the bus and play, get on the bus and go home. That’s twelve hours in the bus to play one game! And no one ever says a word about it.

“We get on a four-and-a-half hour direct flight with reclining chairs, a hot meal served to us, a movie, time to take a nap. It’s the most wonderful thing that I look forward to, because I’ve got a chance to get caught up on some of my reading. There’s a little nap time, there are no phones, no distractions, and I might even catch the movie if I have time. It’s wonderful. That’s how we sell it. That flight is wonderful.

“What employee wouldn’t love to have his boss come in and say ‘You’re such a good employee, I’m going to give you the day off. I’m going to cut off all the phones. In fact, I’m going to have a meal served to you. I’m going to let you sit back in your chair, and I’m going to have your favorite movie on. And if you want, take a nap, I don’t really care. ‘Cause you are such a good employee.’ That’s how I feel when I get on the flight. I feel like I’m being rewarded. That’s how we sell the travel.”

And Alaska-Anchorage has no classes on Friday, the typical travel day, so students there actually miss less class time than most schools in the WCHA. On average, the student-athletes maintain better than a 3.0 grade-point average, and have for years.

About the wilderness, and lack of population:

“As far as living in Alaska, more senior citizens spend a large share of their retirement to come to Alaska than any other place in the world, because it’s the chance of a lifetime. It’s something they’ve always wanted to do. Why is that? Because it is so spectacular.

“So now you tell a college athlete that you’ll pay for them to stay and live and experience Alaska for four years. What an unbelievable opportunity, to leave and have this experience. You don’t even have to step in the classroom and it’s an education, just living here.

“So we sell Alaska. An education. We sell Sullivan Arena. We sell the WCHA. Plus it is a metropolitan city, with some of the finest theaters, museums, libraries all kinds of things. Not only living in Alaska, but in a metropolitan city, and playing in one of the best leagues in the country.

About the style of play:

“What we sell more than anything is Seawolf hockey. The players that choose to come here, come here because of who we are, not in spite of who we are. The fact that we play a physical, intense game of hockey and still can play within the rules is real toughness. That is toughness.

“Anybody can check somebody from behind. Anybody can drop their gloves. Anybody can spear somebody. But to play sixty minutes under control, take the hit, make the play, keep coming back. Pick yourself up, go back to the net, get hit again and never complain, never lose your focus and keep playing. That’s toughness.

“When I was playing with the North Stars, I used to train with the Minnesota Vikings in the summer. Some of those guys were 300-pound offensive linemen. I used to go watch their games, and they used to get slapped and elbowed on the side of the head, just beat up. And they never once flinched. They went back to the huddle and went back at it. In fact, I knew the center back then, and he just kept getting hammered and hammered by linebackers. And he kept going back to the huddle, and just hikin’ that ball and blockin’. That’s toughness.

“You ask me, why does Barry Sanders get tackled by 11 guys, gets up, goes back to the huddle, and next time breaks one for 20 yards. That’s toughness. If he had a [standard] hockey mentality, he’d punch every guy every time he got tackled. That’s not toughness. That’s lack of self-control, lack of discipline, inability to play within the rules.

“I’m teaching these guys, that when you go out in life — real life — and get a job, you’re not going to have the fanciest office. And you’re going to have some of the bad projects. And you’re going to have to work long hours, and sometimes you’ll lose your job, and sometimes you’ll have a boss you really don’t care for.

“And what do you do? Do you whine, do you cry, do you panic? Do you throw stuff? Or do you just go to work every day and get it done with a smile on your face? That’s what I’m teaching these guys. That’s why they come here. They play a physical game. They play it tougher than anybody, and they play it within the rules.

“That’s what everybody should be teaching these student-athletes.”

Still, losing a lot of games is not easy. After one year behind the Seawolf bench, Talafous’ record was 9-23-4. Not exactly setting the world on fire. And this year doesn’t seem to be any better, at least in terms of the win-loss column.

However, one need only look at Talafous’ record at Wisconsin-River Falls to see an emerging pattern. In Talafous’ second year there, which Talafous himself admits was a difficult time as the team and staff adjusted to his vision of how the team should be, the record was 6-18-1. The next year was 6-17-1.

However, in his fourth year, with mostly kids that had been recruited under his regime buying into his system of play, the team was 19-13-1 and the NCAA Division III runner-up. The following year, with all kids that Talafous himself had recruited, the team won the NCAA championship. So while lean years may be here now, it may not be too difficult to see some relief just over the horizon.

“I don’t put a timeline,” Talafous says. “They are phases. I don’t know how long the phases take; I think they take different lengths of time depending on where you are going.

“The first phase is to come in and say ‘This is me. This is who I am, and this is what our program is. We have a new identity. There are no if, ands, or buts about it. You need to buy into it 100 percent. Totally committed. Live by the standards that we set. Every player in that room, do you want to be a member? This is it.’ Then there’s shock, and there’s movement, and players leave, players stay, players rise to a higher level and players sink. Change is unbelievable, what it does to people.

“Then the next year you bring an influx of players who understand what you are, and want to be there because of that reason. So you’ve got some carry-overs, and you’ve got some new guys. But basically you’ve got a very young team. And they have to learn to be successful, and that’s what we’re learning now. How to play, how to prepare, how to stay mentally tough, how to believe in yourself, how to overcome things. We’re learning to be successful together, and learning to improve as a team.

“Then you bring in more recruits. The recruits you have get older and become leaders. At some point, you’ve learned to win, and you start winning at a consistent rate. So your identity is in place, and everybody starts to believe in themselves and understand what it takes.

“Where are we right now? We obviously went through the change in identity. That’s the most difficult part, I can tell you. I go home, and I basically lock myself in a house, and don’t give my address or phone number out, because it is very difficult when all the pressure and the skeptics are out there, and I have to stay true to what I know is right. It’s very difficult for me. I’m human. I hear all the critics.

“But I also know I’ve been in this game for 30 years, and I’ve read all the success stories, and I’ve experienced them as a player and coach. So I know you have to have an identity that you believe in. It doesn’t matter what anybody says or does, you stay on course.

“That’s the first year. Now you bring in all these new guys, and some are better than you thought, and some aren’t as good. Some come along at a faster rate. It’s a good league. And your first set of recruits aren’t going to be superstars, because you’re recruiting them as a ninth-place team. And you’re a new coach that hasn’t had any success.

“Then you bring in another set, and you hope that a few of those turn out to be a little better than you thought. But you really have to depend on the team.

“Look at Minnesota. I don’t think anyone would argue that they had more talent [than we did]. All their players have been on USA Select-16 and 17s, Mr. Hockeys, on and on and on. Plus they have all the confidence and belief in themselves, because they have been winning for 50 years. So we have to learn, with young kids and less talented recruits, how do we beat them as a team? How do we give ourselves a chance to be in those games? So we can learn to win with less, right now, then [win] as we get more.

“But our system is the same as Detroit. Our system is the same as at River Falls, that won a national championship and was averaging 45 shots a game. We just don’t have as much talent here yet, or experience. So everyone says you’re playing defense — well, the other team is going to have the puck a lot, because they’ve got more talent. So you need to defend.

“People don’t realize you can’t run and gun before you have that talent. But if you know how to play defense, and you believe in your system, you give yourself a chance to win with less. That’s what we’re doing now.”

Lean years are still trouble, though. Alaska-Anchorage has not immediately managed to contend for home-ice in the playoffs, let alone for the WCHA title. In this age of instant gratification, that will put many a coach’s job in jeopardy. And while the Alaska-Anchorage administration showed Talafous they believed in him by hiring him in the first place, what have they done for him lately? Doesn’t he feel the pressure to get the team on the winning track?

He answers that issue, as he does all issues, easily and confidently.

“I don’t look for support, because it is my job to stay on course. We were 1-6, but we tried to stretch our system, and we gave everyone a chance to play. We needed to get the young kids in there, and we needed to find out, after studying all the tapes from last year all summer, what are some things we can do differently and better in our system that will give us a better chance to win. Some worked, some didn’t.

“So we went back and reshuffled and said, ‘Okay, let’s pull back a little in this area, and pull back in this area. Let’s stay out there in this area.’ So now the system has been refined to give us a better chance to win, without changing a great deal. But you want to try all those things and see what works early on.

“But the support has actually been better than I would have expected, and better than I need. I get phone calls every day, and letters from people who say ‘We just love what you’re doing. You’re tremendous role models, your kids, they work hard, they are so team-oriented. They have so much discipline and so much heart. Thank you very much.’

“I get calls like that every day. I don’t think I’ve ever received a call, in a year and a half, that has been negative. I know there is negative talk. There is in Minnesota — there is anywhere. That’s part of coaching, and part of athletics. Everyone’s an armchair quarterback, and everybody has an answer and a better way of doing it. But I continually get letters in the mail saying, ‘Hang in there, keep going, we love what you’re doing.’ Which is nice. I don’t depend on it, because you can’t, in this business. But there is tremendous support out there.”

But more than anything else, Talafous says, “We just want to be a quality opponent. The more successful programs, like North Dakota, would be the first to say playing in the league really helped [them] prepare for the playoffs. Every weekend, they had to be ready. It didn’t matter who they were playing, they had to be at their best. It makes you a better team, it makes our league better. It makes more excitement and more entertainment for the fans. We want to be a quality program. We want to be a program that the rest of the members are proud of, just like we’re proud of all of them. That’s the way we see our role. We want to be the best. We have Seawolf pride.”

An example of “Seawolf pride” can be seen at 6,206-seat Sullivan Arena. As a hockey game goes on, surrounded by screaming fans, the public-address announcer interrupts for a moment to mention a basketball score which Alaska Anchorage has won. “Another Seawolf victory!” he yells. The crowd howls its approval.

“Pride really means that you want to be your best, and you want to be the best someday. We want to be a quality member [of the WCHA], and we want to represent the league wherever we go in good standing, and I believe we’re doing that. We’re not at the level we’d like to be at, but we’re at the infant stages of the program under my leadership.

“I hope they can see improvement, and one day see that we’re one of the elite programs in the country. That will be our goal. We’re very proud to be in the league — I’ve been a member of the league since my college days. I’ve followed it, I’ve been an assistant coach in it, so I really have my roots in this league. I think all the leagues are quality throughout the nation, but I think everyone would admit [the WCHA is] certainly as good as anyone. Better? I don’t know, and I don’t think we need to determine that. But everyone would say the WCHA is high-quality.”

And being in the WCHA brings more than just respect to the program. It brings high-level opponents.

“I keep telling our fans, ‘Every weekend we play a national contender, and that only helps our chances of being there someday.’ If you keep playing great teams, and you learn something new each weekend, one day you’ll be one of those teams. It’s very fortunate to be in a league like this. Once we figure out how to beat our league, we’ll be able to beat anybody. It’s a real advantage to us playing opponents like St. Cloud, Colorado, Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota every weekend.”

Still, the bottom line for the Alaska-Anchorage team is steady improvement. Incremental steps, with an eye on your goals and dreams.

“We just have to get better. I keep the game very simple, [and] we look to make daily improvements. We get better every weekend. We play every weekend like it is a championship series. Come to work on Monday, and we’ll be a better hockey team than yesterday. Tomorrow, a better team than we were Monday. Every weekend we’re better. We learn from our mistakes. It is a steady upward climb, and as long as you make steady improvement every day, you’ll be the best you can be at the end of the year, and that’s all that matters.

“You can’t look ahead. We don’t even have Saturday, we have Friday. In fact, we don’t have Friday, we have the first period, or first shift. That’s what’s important — that first shift. And then one shift at a time.

“That’s the way you have to look at it. You have to get better this week. We have to go out there and see if we can beat them by being at our best, playing our game. When that’s over, look ahead.

“I couldn’t tell you who we play, or what our schedule is when we’re home or when we’re on the road. Some people say, ‘You’ve got a great schedule, you’re home for a while.’ You only know if your schedule’s good in May. You look back and say, ‘Oh yeah, it was kinda nice to go on that road trip. It was nice we were at home for a while.’ How do you know? Every team is so good that it would be overwhelming if I thought about what it would take to win in this league. So you just take it one game at a time.

“That’s really the way you should take life. One day at a time. Steady improvement, and you’ll get to where you want to be.”

Wise words from someone who obviously knows not only who and where he is, but where he’s going and how to get there.