Hockey has always been part of the culture in the 48th state, whether it be in the hit film Mystery Alaska, its countless pickup games on all their frozen ponds and streams, or 40 years’ worth of varsity hockey on two NCAA campuses. Last week that number has shrunk to one, as Alaska Anchorage announced it had dropped its hockey program, ending a 41-year reign as a varsity sport.
Forty-eight hours after Anchorage coach Matt Curley expressed his enthusiasm about the 2020-21 season on WCHA media day, the bell tolled for the Seawolves when the school announced it had dropped hockey as a varsity sport. It was not a major surprise, however — the program had been on life support for two years. When the Seawolves left downtown Sullivan Arena (6,300 capacity) to play home games in their practice facility, the proverbial writing was on the wall. A state university in desperate need of funding could no longer justify the costs associated with varsity hockey.
The program leaves a profound legacy, one in which several notable NCAA coaching careers were launched: from Curley himself to current Lake Superior State coach Damon Whitten (Anchorage asst. 2006-08), to CCHA commissioner Don Lucia (Anchorage asst. 1985-87). Lucia was a protégé of the Seawolves’ original coach Brush Christiansen. Like many others who ventured north into the “Last Frontier,” Lucia put down roots in Alaska, starting a family and nurturing an affinity he has maintained for 35 years.
FloHockey’s Tim Rappleye caught up with the two-time NCAA championship coach for his farewell thoughts on this once-proud NCAA hockey institution.
FloHockey: Don, you are an adopted son of Alaska after having coached the Seawolves and the Nanooks back in the 1980s. This must be quite personal.
Lucia: I obviously spent a lot of time there; my in-laws live in Anchorage. I’m very close with Brush [Christiansen], having worked with him for two years and maintained our friendship. He’s kind of the godfather of Seawolves hockey. I actually see him a lot now in the summertime. I know how disappointed this whole thing has been to him, and for everybody that has been a fan of college hockey over the years.
I texted Matt Curley last week, a really nice guy. I just felt really bad for the players, with the announcement that they were going to do away with the program. To have the rug pulled out from under them is really disappointing for everybody.
Current fans may not realize the three-year NCAA run the Seawolves had in the early ’90s. You were up in Fairbanks when Anchorage enjoyed its national prominence.
People talk about the great upsets in college hockey history . . . I maintain maybe the biggest was Anchorage going into Boston College and not winning once, but sweeping the series in 1991. Bill Guerin [USA Olympian], David Emma [1991 Hobey Baker Award Winner], they [B.C] had some really good players on that team.
They [Anchorage] went into Northern Michigan the next weekend and played them really tough, too. That was the year Northern went on to win the national title that year, so they were really good.
There must have been a huge hockey buzz in Anchorage.
Sullivan Arena was the place to be in Anchorage. The Arena was sold out, there were 6,400 people at every game, lower bowl people stand against the back of the wall there. It was the place to go, the place to be seen in Anchorage. They built themselves into a really strong program.
One of the neat things about [both] programs in Alaska was that a lot of the kids they brought up there stayed. They worked, they coached youth hockey, married gals from Alaska, and really became part of the community. That’s been one of the great things about the hockey programs in Anchorage and Fairbanks is that those kids came up and stayed, and made Anchorage their home.
Stanley Cup champion Scott Gomez has spoken about how he grew up watching games at Sullivan Arena, how former Seawolves star Mike Peluso was his hero.
There’s a lot of Anchorage players that have gone on to play in the National Hockey League, gone on to play college hockey, have gone on the WHL. It’s a real hockey community, whether it’s outdoors or indoors. There were some real pioneers up there, from Dempsey Anderson to Brush.
In its heyday it was a great college hockey town, as good as anywhere across the country. They had 6,000-plus attending every home game. People thrived on the Seawolves and college hockey.
Tim Rappleye is the author of two books: Jack Parker's Wiseguys and Hobey Baker, Upon Further Review. You can find him on Twitter.