The Road Most Traveled
by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
Life for an NCAA Division I athlete is all about balance — academics vs. athletics, time spent at home versus time spent on the road.
For the Alaska Nanooks, that time spent on the road is simply their way of life, as they routinely travel over 3,000 miles to play hockey games against league rivals whose homes are far away from the "Great White North."
For instance, the distance from Fairbanks, Alaska to Oxford, Ohio — home of the Miami RedHawks and the furthest league destination from the Nanooks' home base — is 3,723 miles, a trip that would take a full three days of driving to complete.
Needless to say, Alaska routinely embarks on the most unique road trip in the CCHA — although, of course, "road trip" is a bit of a misnomer.
"We'll leave on a Wednesday morning and fly, generally direct to Seattle or Detroit for our layover," explained Ferguson. "But when we hit the ground [at our destination], we don't just go to the hotel. We get the guys on the ice and get a good skate and workout under our belt. That gives us a good night's sleep on Wednesday night and Thursday and gets the guys ready to play on Friday and Saturday.
"We're fortunate where, if we have to get to Miami, we can fly right into Cincinnati, and it's a 35 minute drive from there. It's not like we're flying in and bussing for a long time. We don't spend much time on the buses. We're able to get close to the campuses."
The Nanooks return to their own campus by Sunday evening, in time for class on Monday morning. Sometimes, they leave again for the continental United States on Wednesday.
"There's sacrifice there," continued Ferguson. "What we do in the recruiting process is make sure we're recruiting good students. The classroom size here allows for good relationships to be built with faculty and their peers, so the faculty recognize that they're Division I athletes. But they're also serious about their educations."
A former Nanook defenseman and team captain, Ferguson has been able to help his players fulfill their dual responsibilities. He cites the team's cumulative GPA over the last five semesters as over a 3.4, with his players taking an average of 15 credits, a full course load.
Says Ferguson, "I give a lot of credit to our players because they put the work in and the time in to make sure they're organized. They're prepared to do the work that needs to be done when they're not in the classroom."
Two years ago — his first season as head coach at his alma mater — Ferguson captured the league's Coach of the Year Award. And last season, the Nanooks reached the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history.
Over the last two years, Alaska has defeated a No. 1 ranked team on four separate occasions.
"We've got a real close-knit group of guys here," said Ferguson. "They're on the road almost every day of the year, and they get along really well. They're supportive of each other. Chemistry is something we feel has been a strength of our program over our last few years."
Ferguson himself finished his career at Alaska with 104 points (17g, 87a) and was a three-time recipient of the Shawn Chambers Top Defenseman Award. Through the years — first as a player, then as an assistant coach, and now as a head coach — he has seen the program in Fairbanks evolve, both at home and away.
"We used to travel and get in on the Thursday night before, and we'd have to play on Friday," recalled Ferguson. "We do get an extra day now to get acclimated, which is something that is appropriate with all the travel that we do. We want to give our team the best opportunity to be successful without jeopardizing our academic commitments as well."
Ferguson and his squad now await the start of the CCHA playoffs — which, of course, means more traveling, more time away from home and from the classroom.
Still, no matter the destination, they'll head straight for the nearest rink, hitting the ice over 3,000 miles away from Fairbanks.
After the long "road" trip, it's their opportunity to feel right at home.