Righting the Ship
Alaska Has Its Third Coach in Three Years, But the Future Is Bright
by Nicole Auerbach/CHN Reporter
FAIRBANKS, Alaska Alaska coach Dallas Ferguson wasn't intimidated at the prospect of facing his role model.
Sure, he has always respected Michigan coach Red Berenson, but he couldn't pass up the opportunity for a program-defining victory.
Ferguson's Nanooks knocked out Berenson's seventh-ranked Wolverines 4-1 last Friday night in Fairbanks. Perhaps Ferguson's biggest win of his rookie campaign, the game represented more than a simple rebound from last season's dismal 9-21-5 record — it hinted at the future of the Alaska hockey program.
And that sneak peek was modeled after Berenson's approach to coaching.
"Red's a great ambassador to the game of hockey," Ferguson said. "He coaches for the right reasons. He wants to see kids develop, get an education, and if they can move forward with their hockey careers, great, but if not, at least they're falling back on their education.
"He always wants what's best for the student-athletes and college hockey, not only what's best for Michigan hockey."
It's that same emphasis on the "student" part of student-athlete that Ferguson uses to motivate his players.
And like Berenson, he hopes to transform a hockey program and bring it to the front of the national stage.
The road always leads home
Ferguson knew exactly what he was getting into when he signed on as the Nanook head coach this past May. He was taking over a program without much history of success at the CCHA level, and he would be the team's third head coach in three years.
Guy Gadowsky had modest success before leaving for Princeton, and his successor, Tavis MacMillan, seemed like a good choice to continue things along, until he abruptly departed following the 2006-07 season because his wife received a can't-refuse opportunity in Minnesota. Doc DelCastillo coached last year, and the story surrounding his rocky season and tumultuous departure is still not entirely clear.
Some coaches have been overwhelmed by the strenuous travel schedule of the Nanooks, but not Ferguson.
"I don't know anything else," said Ferguson, who played as a defenseman for Alaska from 1992-1996. "As a student-athlete, that's what you did to compete. As a coach, it's the same thing. ... It's a part of being able to do what you love."
Ferguson's professional career was short-lived. Following his college career, he played for four years for the Alaska Gold Kings and Anchorage Aces of the West Coast Hockey League as well as the Richmond Renegades of the East Coast Hockey League.
After realizing that his future lay elsewhere, Ferguson returned to Fairbanks to finish a business degree and be closer to his now-wife, Tara.
Turning down off-ice opportunities, he decided to pursue jobs that kept him near the rink. As a child growing up with lots of cousins, Ferguson learned at a young age how to teach others and work with kids. He worked at summer hockey camps through his adolescence. Ferguson became an assistant coach for the Fairbanks Ice Dogs Junior A hockey team, where he coached for two years before being offered an assistant job with the Nanooks.
The career path he stumbled upon has turned into a very rewarding experience.
"For me, it's a positive place to be, being around a group of young men who obviously want to pursue athletic goals and dreams and also being able to support them through their academic challenges," Ferguson said.
Ferguson had what you could call a 'home-ice' advantage when he took the reigns in May.
He knew all the returning players, the recruits, the athletic department staff, professors at the university and a large part of the community.
Ferguson said his familiarity made the transition to head coach very smooth.
"Basically for me, it just was about building a staff, creating a schedule and getting a lot of hockey things worked out," he said.
As an assistant coach, Ferguson worked primarily with Nanook defensemen and the penalty kill unit. So while the blue line is an obvious focus for Alaska, a team that ranks first in the CCHA with just 15 goals against in ten games, Ferguson also knew he needed to address other areas of the ice.
"It was important for me to surround myself with people who could bring in experience in my areas of inexperience," he said.
Ferguson hired two coaches who played center in their college days to lead the offensive attack. Lance West, who was a volunteer coach for Alaska last year, played for Alabama-Huntsville. Brian Meisner, another first year Nanook coach, skated for the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minn.
Together, the trio has tried to change the culture of Alaska hockey.
"Every time you have a head coaching change, the philosophy changes quite a bit," West said. "It's a different mentality where the players are more relaxed, not as tight or afraid to make a mistake out there. ... Sometimes you get caught up in the negative aspects of the mistakes, and I think we're trying to get away from that this year."
The positive approach has bred confidence for players.
Instead of taking each victory as a surprise, the Nanooks look at each win as a building block.
The win over Michigan last weekend, for example, helped the program's visibility.
"Now that we've had a good start, we need to use it out there on the recruiting trail," West explained. "We have the program stabilized. That's the term everyone used here. Bringing in a stable guy, Dallas, who the community knew, the kids knew, and people trusted here. ... Now that we have that, we really have to take advantage of it."
The addition of 12 freshmen to the Alaska roster this fall helped change the energy of the program, too. Ferguson said the enthusiasm they brought was what the Nanooks needed.
The shutdown defense and relentless goaltending are also largely responsible for the team's 6-4-1 record.
"We believe firmly in working from our net out," Ferguson said. "(We stress) taking care of our end and taking care of the defensive details, and the offense will come to us."
And beyond that, Ferguson measures success off the rink, as well — and that's most important to him.
"My intent is to develop (the players)," Ferguson said. "I want to develop them academically, earning degrees in four years, athletically, and so they represent the program the best they can."
Everything is new
For a first-year head coach, surprises come on a regular basis.
And Ferguson knows his success and future depend on how he approaches them.
"Everything's a first for me," Ferguson said. "The positive and negative things, too. The second you think you know everything is the second you're on your way down. I take everything as a learning experience. I tell the team to use the negatives to prepare for the next time. ... It's the same way with my coaching."
Ferguson said he has learned a lot from veteran coaches in the CCHA, especially when they all gathered in Grand Rapids, Mich., for the conference's media day in September. Besides appreciating Berenson's advice and stories, he said he liked how every conversation with the other coaches circled back to hockey and tips for games.
And his players have made the start of his rookie season quite memorable, too.
After Alaska defeated Bowling Green 3-0 on Oct. 25, Ferguson was presented with his first CCHA victory puck by his team captain, senior Adam Naglich.
"That's special," Ferguson said. "It sits on my bookshelf in my office. When I look at it every once in awhile, it puts a smile on my face."