ANCHORAGE, Alaska — It would be extremely difficult to find another head coach at any level of college hockey who has seen and dealt with as much as Alaska Anchorage Seawolves head coach Matt Curley has had to since he took over a struggling program in need of a change just two years ago.
For Curley, it is hard to feel like his program can catch a break. During his tenure, seven WCHA member schools announced their decision to break away from the league and reconstitute the CCHA. To make matters worse, during the 2019-20 season, the program tried to celebrate its 40th anniversary, even though its future became more and more precarious as Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy struggled to balance the state’s budget, leading to cuts to the state’s universities.
The job ahead of Curley was made even more difficult this past week with the school’s announcement that 2020-21 would be the final season the Seawolves will play. The school is shutting the program down. Nothing like an internal team challenge to go along with all the other issues Curley and his staff were hoping to work on this season, especially given that the announcement comes as students are just beginning to return to campus for the 2020-21 school year.
“It’s a bit of a whirlwind,” said Curley in a phone interview Thursday, “but you know, really, a lot of today, yesterday, today into tomorrow, is kind of (a) rerack and with all of our players that are here, traveling en route and try to get some face-to-face, 1-on-1 with them, explain to them what’s going on and making sure their understanding of everything.”
Figuring his players have already heard, Curley felt it was important to jump out in front of the announcement as best he could because he believes there never is a good time to get bad news.
“An old mentor of mine, Ryan Soderquist, who’s the head coach at Bentley, used to tell me that bad news doesn’t get better over time,” Curley said. “I think there’s a lot of validity to that in terms that the university has made a decision and it’s not going to get any easier to tell us, so why not just do it.
“It just happens to be at this time, which is what it is. We’ll adjust accordingly. We’ll make the best of the situation.”
Curley knew, even before he took over the Seawolves, that the program had a lot of work to do.
The year before Curley arrived in Anchorage, the Seawolves went 4-26-4. In his first season, things were difficult. The Seawolves scored just 40 goals and went 3-28-3 overall.
When his team stepped off the ice on Friday, March 6, after an 8-1 loss to open the WCHA Playoffs, Curley had one mission on his mind, getting a better effort out of his team the following night against the league’s top playoff qualifier, the Minnesota State Mavericks.
A scoreless first period in game two showed him that his team was responding. Then 10:58 into the second period, something that had been happening all year for the Seawolves came to fruition again, a freshman, namely Marcus Mitchell, found the back of the net for his second goal of the season. It was his first goal since Friday, Oct. 31, 2019, against Nebraska Omaha, but there was no better stage for his second goal to take place.
Mitchell did not stop there. With the Seawolves trailing 2-1 early in the third, he picked up a helper on a goal by senior Corey Renwick and suddenly the Seawolves had the Mavericks in a 2-2 deadlock. They went on to drop the game, 4-2, in the end.
For Curley’s Seawolves, this was the story of their 2019-20 season. With 10 freshmen on the roster, the team was going to need to lean on their youth, and they did.
“That freshmen class got a ton of opportunity and experience in that first year to do their thing and gain experience. To play at this level as freshmen, which is outstanding, and certainly they had their bumps and bruises along the way, but we were able to grow and develop a lot in the course of that year.
“Our upper class and our older guys served as models for that and how things can and should be done at this level. We took a lot of steps and are hoping to continue that step forward into this year and beyond.”
When the dust settled, some reasons to get excited about the future of the program became clear. The Seawolves rode their first-year players to the WCHA Playoffs, scored 29 more goals than they had the year before, and made significant strides in many facets of their game.
“It was a good year for us last year,” said Curley. “I know, on paper, the record is still a little ugly, but we were able to score almost 40 more goals. We made the playoffs for the first time in a number of years here. We led the league and All-Conference academic players, the freshman class led the nation, or was certainly the tops in the nation, in a lot of statistical categories. So, there’s a lot of positive momentum coming from that 40-year celebration that we had.”
Curley is proud of the efforts put in by seniors like Luc Brown, who led the team in scoring despite only playing 20 games, and Tomi Heikkavirta, both of whom helped lead the deep freshman class that included the likes of Rylee St. Onge, Nick Wicks, Alex Frye and Brayden Camrud.
Frye led the team in goals (9) while St. Onge (17) and Wicks (16) finished second and third in total points, respectively.
All that success from so many young players makes Curley both proud and frustrated as he knows the program is reaching its end point.
“For me, what’s really tough is for the our guys that we have brought in, telling them what our vision, our plan is, and them being a part of that future.
“I think last year’s, our [staff’s] first, recruiting class, is a great example of what I think we are capable of. It’s tough. I feel bad for those kids. I hope my message to them hasn’t been tarnished by this announcement in terms of what I believe in them as people and players.”
For a player like Camrud, whose career was already in the spotlight at a much earlier age than most players due to the Humboldt bus tragedy, it is tough to bounce back from more adversity. However, Curley feels that the youngster, and his classmates, have the ability to do just that, even though it will not necessarily be at the same program that they committed to in the first place.
“Braden is a perfect example,” said Curley. “He and many of his classmates, and our incoming guys for this season, are told that right? We all deliver that same message. I’m seeing value in those individuals as people and as well as players. I felt that they were the type of college hockey player we wanted to help advance our program on the ice and continue to represent in a strong fashion off the ice. Those guys have all done that great, including in the classroom, in the community.
”It’s certainly frustrating and disappointing for those kids that they’re not going to be able to continue to do that here, but I’m extremely hopeful and confident in their abilities to do that elsewhere to finish their collegiate career.”
Alaska Anchorage was not the first program to discuss dropping hockey in the face of what has been a global crisis. Alabama Huntsville announced on May 22 that they were dropping their program. A week later, donations from across the hockey world poured in, and the Chargers announced that the program would return.
While he is optimistic that the Seawolves could see a similar outpouring of support, he is also resigned to the fact that the program has struggled financially in recent years, and there has not been a push to help keep the program alive and vibrant.
“If those discussions have started, I have not been a part of them,” he said. “I know it’s still pretty fresh, and that may that be the case, but if it is, it’s not to my knowledge. With that being said, this is something that has been well publicized, our troubles in recent years. Certainly there’s been plenty of time prior to this to rally and to find solutions for the long-term viability of this place and this program.”
With the future of college hockey in doubt, given that the world is still struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic, the second playoff loss to the Mavericks, which eliminated the Seawolves, might actually have been the final game for the program. For Curley, that is a sobering thought.
“[It’s] a little depressing to think about currently, and I certainly hope that’s not the case,” he said. “We had a great last game against one of the best teams in the country in Minnesota State last March to finish things off. Despite the outcome of that game, I was really proud of the way we finished up and [it was] something to hang our hats on heading into the offseason.
“I hate to think that that was the last opportunity for us to put on those jerseys and for myself and the staff to stand behind the bench. [It is] the way the world right now and you certainly never know what’s going to transpire. If there’s anything that the past few months have taught me is that there’s no guarantees. We’ve got to be able to adapt and adjust to whatever situation comes our way.”
Whether things improve at Alaska Anchorage or not, Curley believes in the players who have committed to playing hockey for the Seawolves. He wants the best for them, whether that is with the Seawolves for one more season, or with another program after this year.
“I just hope that we’re all given an opportunity, especially our kids, to have a chance to move forward after this upcoming year,” he said. “Because they certainly deserve that.”