Saving the Seawolves

Anchorage Hockey Community Bands Together To Keep Their Beloved College Hockey Team On The Ice

When Kathie Bethard's sons were little they would sit by the glass inside Anchorage Sports Center watching their college hockey heroes in action. They would bang on the glass to get the attention of University of Alaska Anchorage Seawolf players, begging for pucks and autographs from those they hoped to one day follow.

Her boys, Todd and Brian, did grow up to play college hockey, Todd with his hometown team while Brian ventured off to play at Colorado College. 

Once their college careers were over, both returned to Anchorage to embark on careers, raise families and become part of the community. Part of that meant giving back to their local youth hockey program by coaching the next generation of players.

It's part of hockey's cycle of life that has sustained the game for generations.

Seawolf hockey has always been a family affair for the Bethards. Kathie was a board member since the program was founded by Brush Christiansen in 1979, and along with her husband Frank, daughter Heather and their two boys would faithfully attend games. She stayed involved through the years, serving on the youth hockey board and helping to organize off-ice officials.

So when she heard the news in August that the school chancellor Cathy Sandeen proposed eliminating hockey, along with alpine skiing and gymnastics, in response to state funding cuts, it was second nature that she would jump into action. 

As it does so often when faced with tough times, the hockey community banded together to launch a fundraising campaign (Save Seawolf Hockey) to rally the community and do whatever it takes to keep college hockey alive in Anchorage.

Ultimately, the university's board of regents threw the hockey program a lifeline, giving the team a chance at reinstatement if it could raise $3 million dollars by February to cover two seasons worth of expenses. To date the group has raised more than $1 million, which includes a promise from the Eugene Giza Fund to match every gift up to $250,000.

"We're all committed to make this work," Bethard said. "We know that there's a lot of work to be done even after we raise the money to get total buy-in from our legislators, the board of regents, the new chancellor and president of UAA. 

"We're willing to do that hard work. We have the right people on this committee to be able to do that along with the community support. We're going to get it done."

For Bethard and so many, this is about more than just losing a hockey program.
It is losing a vital part of their past and something that is ingrained in the fabric of the Anchorage community. 

Those players decked out in green and gold are more than just idols to be cheered on during weekend games. Many stayed in Anchorage, put down roots in the community and became valued members of the society and integral cogs in the youth hockey ecosystem. 

"The hockey community in Alaska has been enriched by the UAA and UAF programs because so many of those high-level players stayed in Alaska, raised their families here and have given back to the community," said Darryl Thompson, the president of USA Hockey's Alaska affiliate.

"On so many levels I think it would decimate the community. And it's not just hockey. These people are our medical professionals, our firefighters and our teachers. They are leaders in our community. It would be a huge loss."

Brian Kraft knows this all too well. He grew up in the Chicago suburb of Melrose Park, Ill., and transferred to UAA after one season at Northern Michigan University. During his red shirt season in Anchorage he would practice with the college club and then fly to Fairbanks on weekends to play with the Gold Kings, a senior amateur team.

Like so many others, he fell in love with Alaska and never left. He built a successful business running fishing lodges that cater to sportsmen and women from all over the world. In addition, he spent years heavily involved in the local hockey community as a coach and a hockey dad. His daughter Amber was a member of the Anchorage North Stars team that won the USA Hockey Girls Tier II 16 & Under National Championship in 2017.

"Growing up those kids really had something to look up to. And if this program goes away, that's going to be a huge void," said Kraft, who launched the Seawolf Alumni Match Challenge with a $25,000 donation. 

"Anchorage has long dark winters as it is. We are a winter sports community and if you're not on the slopes skiing or cross country skiing, you're in a rink. That's just the way it is.

"Regardless if the team is actually putting wins in the column or not, having a Div. I program in your hometown inspires kids to want to get better and want to be involved in the sport. They see that there are opportunities available for them. It's going to be a big void if that's not here."

Like Kraft, those involved in the campaign to Save Seawolf Hockey are looking to put more than just a Band-Aid on the problem. They are determined to create a long-term plan that will sustain the program well into the future. That includes building a new facility that will attract potential student athletes to the university and create a buzz on its campus.

"It's hard to measure in dollars and cents what a program means to the community," Kraft said. "Without a hockey program on campus this university has no identity. Win, lose or draw on the ice, it's the name recognition that an athletic program brings to the university overall that brings interest in it. 

"The thing that makes kids want to come to a university is that it's fun, it has excitement, the campus is vibrant and alive. Without athletics here, this campus will be a ghost town."

Six hours north, in the town of Fairbanks, there is concern among the local hockey community that the loss of the UAA program could have a domino effect on its college program.

"Right now we have two Div. I hockey teams and two very good North American Hockey League teams, so it's just kind of a natural progression for our youth kids to play their youth hockey here and then play for a great junior program and then be able to play Div. I college hockey," said Wayne Sawchuk, a USA Hockey District director who stayed in Fairbanks after playing college hockey there in the 1980s.

"It would be very disappointing to lose that and very bad for our state and the growth of hockey."

The loss of school funding is one part of the challenge the hockey program faces. Earlier in the year, the other seven teams in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association voted to shrink its geographical footprint by forming a new league that didn't  include either Alaska school or Alabama Huntsville, which has waged its own battle to avoid the budget cut ax.

On top of that, UAA announced that all of its athletic programs, including hockey, would not play this season due to the impact of Covid-19.

But no matter what is thrown at them, the local hockey community is determined to save the hockey program. The stakes are too high to give it anything but their best shot.

"It's a tall mountain to climb but we've got a lot of people working hard to try to get that done," said Kris Knauss, a USA Hockey District director who grew up going to Seawolf games.

"Seawolf hockey is part of the fabric of Alaska, so it's definitely worth saving."



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