2004-05 Alaska-Fairbanks Season Preview

“Youth is the strength of our hockey program.”

So says first-year head coach Tavis MacMillan, and he’d better be right. The Nanooks welcome 11 rookies this season — almost half the team — after saying goodbye to a senior class that twice engineered home ice in the first round of the CCHA playoffs and brought the ‘Nooks to Detroit at the end of the 2001-02 season.

“We graduated what I would consider one of our better classes in the history of our program,” says MacMillan of a class that included such CCHA notables as Ryan Campbell, Cam Keith, and Tom Herman. “Eleven freshmen is a lot of freshmen and that’s a challenge, but I think it’s going to be one of the strengths of our program this year.”

Gone, too, is Aaron Voros, the hot-headed, play-making forward who signed with the New Jersey Devils.

Of course, the departure that may affect the Nanook program most is that of head coach Guy Gadowsky, Princeton’s new head coach.

It’s tempting to talk about everything the Nanooks have lost, but the real story is in what remains — and who’s arrived.

The Platform

Youth, youth, and more youth. And, if you’re a UAF fan, here’s hoping they can skate. And here’s hoping their opponents can’t keep up with them on the Olympic sheet.

With so many new Nanooks and a new head coach, it’s impossible to get a read on what this team will be like before the season begins. Given UAF’s wide-open, offensive style, you can bet that the new guys can score and they can skate.

“Kyle Greentree will have an immediate impact in our lineup,” says MacMillan. “He can play the game, and he’ll play a prominent role.” As a forward for the Victoria Salsa, Greentree led the British Columbia Hockey League in scoring last season with 115 points (62-53-115). Listed at 6-3, 200 pounds, the freshman will be 21 in November, a man among boys.

The not-quite-so-big Ryan McLeod (5-10, 175) had 77 points with the Salmon Arm Silverbacks (BCHL) and has the necessary speed to get up and down the Olympic sheet.

Six of the Nanook rookies have 1983 birthdays, giving the rebuilding team an age edge. On the other side of the rink, however, a younger recruit — Fairbanks native Wylie Rogers — will push senior goaltender Keith Bartusch for the starting position. Rogers backstopped the Salsa last year after playing for the U.S. Under-18 squad in 2002-03.

The Candidate

There are two for consideration. Fortunately, they’re on the same ticket.

After a 10-point rookie season, junior forward Kelly Czuy had 29 overall points his sophomore year, with 11 goals and 15 assists in conference play. Fearless in the corners and possessing great backdoor sense, Czuy has the potential to be one of the top forwards in the league this season.

Candidate No. 2 is MacMillan. MacMillan served as an assistant coach for seven years under both Gadowsky and Dave Laurion, but spent the 2002-03 season as UAF’s compliance officer. MacMillan is well-respected, an excellent recruiter, and is still the Nanooks fourth all-time leading scorer.

MacMillan’s well acquainted with Nanook hockey, Fairbanks, the CCHA — and he’s a great guy.

Red or Blue?

Who knows? Under Gadowsky, the Nanooks were an offensive team that took chances, scoring often and by committee. UAF averaged 3.29 goals per conference game during the 2003-04 season, third best after Michigan and Miami.

Unfortunately, that number — 3.29 — proved the equalizer in a season when the Nanooks should have broken out. No team can manage more than the middle when it allows as many goals as it scores; UAF was 10th in league defense, allowing 3.29 goals per game.

MacMillan says that the offensive committee days are gone. UAF will rely on Czuy, Greentree, and sophomore forward Curtis Fraser (11-8-19) for the bulk of their scoring this season.

Fifth-year senior and captain Jared Sylvestre — are there any other D-I players born in the 1970s? — will provide solid leadership for the Nanooks, and UAF returns more than a few good upperclassmen, including defensemen Jordan Hendry and Cramer Hickey.

“Jordan Hendry is one of the best defensemen in college hockey,” says MacMillan. “That may be a very bold statement, but it’s true.”

A good defense this season can be the ‘Nooks ticket out of the lower tier, but the youth that is the “strength” of this squad may make the season seem as long as the Alaskan winter nights.