Alaska Has Already Come a Long Way
by Joe Meloni/CHN Reporter
WORCESTER, Mass. The talk surrounding Alaska entering Saturday's Northeast Regional dealt mostly with the distance the Nanooks traveled to arrive in Worcester, Mass., for their matchup with Hockey East Champion and No. 1 seed Boston College.
The Nanooks traveled more than 4,000 miles for the early evening showdown with the Eagles, but they're used to long plane rides. Playing in the CCHA, where their closet conference opponent is more than 1,500 miles away, means they get to make the flight down to Seattle where they board a connector flight to Ann Arbor, Mich., or Columbus, Ohio, or any of the other cities CCHA teams call home.
UAF coach Dallas Ferguson doesn't think too much about how far the team had to travel this week, his thoughts border more on how far the program has come since he took the job leading his alma mater fewer than two seasons ago.
Look back to April 2008 when the UAF job suddenly came available, and you'll find a program stuck in controversy over two alleged sexual harassment accusations made against former coach Doc DelCastillo.
No resolution ever came, but DelCastillo resigned. A new coach for a third consecutive year — DelCastillo took over for Travis MacMillan the year before — is hardly an ideal situation for any athlete, but in college sports where athletes commit to play for a coach, it can be devastating.
The circumstances weren't the best for the program, but Ferguson viewed the situation as the perfect opportunity to stir the program, his program, back where it was supposed to be.
"Going through two coaches in two years, and everything that was going around out there was tough," Ferguson said of the weeks following DelCastillo's resignation. "At the same time, for me, it was a great opportunity. It was my first time as a head coach, and it was a fresh start for the players that were returning. It was opportunity for them to come in and do something special.
"We can't worry about things we can't control. We didn't think about anything that was behind us; we just worried about what was in front of us."
Twelve months later, the Nanooks' season ended with a 17-16-6 record, and while there was no deep run into the CCHA tournament, there was finally stability. A few players left, including CCHA Player of the Year Chad Johnson who finished his senior season with a 1.66 goals-against average and .940 save percentage, but they knew who was going to be there. They knew how they were going to play, and they knew who would hold the whistle during practices. With that, they knew they could finally worry about playing and nothing else.
Another few months later, and Alaska is in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in the program's history.
The Nanooks average 2.82 goals per game entering the weekend, which places 36th nationally. While placing 36th out of 58 teams in scoring offense is hardly enough to strike fear in their opponents, it's nearly a full goal per game higher than the 1.82 they posted a year ago. The progress they've made as a program shows itself throughout the stat sheet and, most importantly, the win column.
There are reasons for the increased offense on the stat sheet, including their top line of wingers Dustin Sather and Andry Taranto flanking pivot Dion Knelsen, but Ferguson may have taking the reins off a little with a full year in the system and the presence of the freshman Taranto.
"We're a team that takes a lot of pride in working hard and playing within ourselves. We're not going to go out there and try to be somebody we're not. We like to do a lot of things that are centered around our work ethic," Ferguson said. "When we create scoring chances, it's going to be from playing smart and making good decisions with the puck."
The Nanooks are in this tournament to win to win it. Like we saw Friday afternoon when RIT gave the tournament's No. 1 seeds their annual wake-up call, no one is content just to be here. Ferguson may have seemed like the chance to play in Worcester was good enough at his press conference Friday — "Nanook hockey is a very prideful group. I'm an alumnus and now I'm the coach and I'm just happy that we have this opportunity" — but it's clear that they want to play Sunday. They want to play in Detroit two weeks from now as well.
Should they win the Northeast Regional, they'll head back to Fairbanks before making the trek down to the continental 48. The trip will probably be a little easier than the jaunt they made this week with Detroit being only half a continent away.
Even with the shorter trip, though, they'll have gone that much farther.