Hockey is king in Alaska, but the only pro team in the state is the ECHL's Alaska Aces. But there is college hockey and a lot of the sport's focus is on the two NCAA Division I hockey programs: Alaska, which plays in the CCHA, and Alaska-Anchorage of the WCHA.
While Alaska is the largest state in the United States, it is one of the least populated. Hockey fans there choose either the Nanooks (Alaska) or the Seawolves (Alaska-Anchorage) for their allegiance in the interstate rivalry and tend to live and die by the team for which they cheer.
"Coaching here is a privilege and an honor because there really is hockey and, more specifically, us and Anchorage, so the passion is huge and the attention is always there," Alaska coach Dallas Ferguson said. "It's always a great environment, and of course the rivalry between us and Anchorage is huge."
The environment has been more positive for Ferguson this season. Heading into the weekend, Alaska was third in the CCHA with a 6-3-3-2 conference record and an 8-4-4 overall record. Meanwhile, Alaska-Anchorage has struggled to find consistency and is seventh in the WCHA standings with a 4-6-2 conference mark and 7-7-2 overall record.
Alaska has been the beneficiary of solid team play and amazing goaltending from senior goalie Chad Johnson
, who is 6-4-4 with a 1.40 goals-against average and a .949 save percentage.
"We've never been a program to talk about individual play, but you have to look at how Chad Johnson
has performed when discussing our team's success thus far," Ferguson said. "Whenever we've needed big saves, he's made them for us. He's been so solid back there and the team has really fed off his play. There're been nights where he was clearly the game's No. 1 star, and he has a lot to do with our record thus far."
But while Ferguson credited Johnson, he has still been very pleased with the team as a whole.
"Overall, I'm very happy with the team effort and game each night," Ferguson said. "There haven't been many times where I could fault them in that area and that's always great for a coach. The defense and forwards always seem to have intensity and structure and have played well all-around. Our spirits are definitely high and it's been fun so far."
The Nanooks have gotten scoring from the players they expected, such as senior captain Adam Naglich (6 goals, 5 assists), junior forward Dion Knelsen
(5 goals, 5 assists), and senior forward Braden Walls (4 goals, 5 assists).
"We're getting what we expected from those guys and they've been great, but I like to think we're a team of unsung heroes and we have a group who shows up to work every night, and that's what makes us tick," Ferguson said. "Our forwards are creating chances with hard work, and on the backend, our D-men are playing great. Their plus/minus is good, they're blocking shots and keeping the game simple, which is how you want a defense to play. We have a good mix of young and veteran players back there."
Alaska has exams this coming week and then will host a two-game set with Western Michigan on Dec. 19-20 before winter break. Ferguson is confident that they can carry their momentum into the break and be ready when they return to action Jan. 2-3 at Michigan State.
"The passion is huge and the attention is always there. It's always a great environment, and of course the rivalry between us and Anchorage is huge."
-- Alaska coach Dallas Ferguson
While Alaska prepares for its final two games and the two-week layoff, its rivals from Anchorage have just begun the longest break of any team in NCAA Division I hockey this season. Alaska-Anchorage lost its last two games to Wisconsin last weekend and won't play until Jan. 9-10 when they host the Badgers in Anchorage. After the two losses to Wisconsin and a .500 season thus far, some time off is welcome, but 30 days off could create some rust.
"It's definitely an odd break this season," coach Dave Shyiak said. "This is the first time we've had one this long. Normally we have two games with our rivals in Fairbanks right after their Christmas break, and then at the end of the season, closing that gap of days off, but this year those games are in February. So it's just one of those scheduling quirks you have to deal with and we will."
While Shyiak would like more consistency, he isn't completely unhappy with the season.
"Up until this past weekend, I was pretty happy with our play," he said. "We had a consistent effort out there and had at least been gaining points every weekend. We were in a good spot standings-wise until this weekend, but we met up with a very strong Wisconsin team that has really turned their season around."
If there's an area Shyiak wants to see improve, it would be overall team defense and goaltending. Junior goaltender Jon Olthius and sophomore Bryce Christianson have struggled, and Shyiak is hoping they find their game for the second half.
"We've certainly made strides as far as scoring goes, but we need to get better in our own end and our goalies need to be more consistent," Shyiak said. "It's been up and down between the pipes. They've played some really good games, but that's an area where we have to get better if we're going to move up the ladder in the standings. That being said, we also need better team defense. We need to minimize chances and tighten up back there."
Captain Mat Robinson
and assistant captains Josh Lunden
and Paul Crowder
have done their jobs as leaders, as far as Shyiak is concerned.
"Matty's a senior and has been through it all," Shyiak said. "He logs a lot of minutes for us and leads by example on and off the ice. The guys respect him for that and it shows. Despite being undersized, he's probably one of the most physical D-men in college hockey. Paul and Josh have also shown leadership and we have a good core of leadership with all three guys."
Crowder and sophomore forward Tommy Grant also are chipping in with some timely scoring. Grant's 11 goals are tied for the WCHA lead. So as Alaska-Anchorage embarks on this long layoff, Shyiak expects his team to stay focused and is confident they can turn things around in the second half of the season.
"You look at how bunched together these teams are in the WCHA, and there's a reason many consider this the toughest conference in college hockey," he said. "We still have a great chance to climb up the standings and finish strong. We just need to work hard and stay focused and do the little things that help you win on a consistent basis."
On Campus Clips
-- The fourth annual Hockey Day in Michigan will take place Feb.14. The CCHA, FSN Detroit, the Detroit Red Wings
and the Michigan Amateur Hockey Association will once again join forces to bring a celebration of hockey to participants and fans across the Great Lakes State. This year's event has been scheduled to coincide with USA Hockey's "Hockey Weekend Across America" Feb. 13-15. Hockey Day in Michigan will feature contests, skills competitions, charity games and "Hockey is Fun" clinics at Novi Ice Arena and Suburban Ice - Farmington Hills. These clinics give boys and girls ages 5-11 an opportunity to experience the fun of hockey for the first time at no cost. "Michigan is a power in the hockey community and provides hockey opportunities to play and watch for every age and level," said Red Wings GM Ken Holland. ... USA Hockey released its roster for the upcoming World Junior Championships in Ottawa, Dec. 26-Jan. 5. Thirteen American college players will be playing for Team USA. New Hampshire's James van Riemsdyk
, Boston University's Colin Wilson
, Boston College's Jimmy Hayes
, Michigan's Aaron Palushaj
and Matt Rust
and Minnesota's Mike Hoeffel
and Jordan Schroeder
will be forwards on the team; Notre Dame's Ian Cole
and Teddy Ruth, Minnesota's Cade Fairchild
, Wisconsin's Ryan McDonagh
, Boston University's Kevin Shattenkirk
and New Hampshire's Blake Kessel
will patrol the blue line. Union coach Nate Leaman will serve as an assistant coach under Team USA head coach Ron Rolston, who was an assistant coach at Boston College before joining the USA Hockey. ... Boston College coach Jerry York was nominated for Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year by SI staff writer Kevin Armstrong
. York coached the Eagles to the 2008 national championship, the third in program history, and second in the last eight seasons. The Watertown, Mass., resident is in his 37th season as a head coach and his 15th season at Boston College. His 810 career victories trail only former Michigan State coach Ron Mason.