Q&A with ... UAA Coach Matt Thomas
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Matt Thomas played at RIT before starting his coaching career as a graduate assistant under the late Shawn Walsh at Maine. He later went to the minor pro level, as an assistant and then a head coach for various teams.
CHN: Welcome back to college hockey.
Thomas: The reality was, I never really planned on leaving. It was mostly a visa issue. I got an opportunity in pro hockey, but my heart was in college hockey. But I just wanted to be a coach and wanted to learn, and get as much experience as possible. (Going to the ECHL) seemed like a great opportunity. Along the way, I had a couple of opportunities to come back, but I couldn't get a visa. And I was in the process of obtaining a green card, and wanted to get that taken care of and then make the shift. So, three years ago, I got my green card and I started poking my nose around a bit. But we all know, it's one of those things — the hockey world has its fraternities; college is college, junior is junior, pro is pro. So when you're not in the mix, it's tough. People hire people they know and trust. So when (UAA) opened up, I truly thought — two things: what a great opportunity, especially with the new change to the new-look WCHA. To go in amidst a bunch of change was appealing; and, Anchorage has an ECHL team, Anchorage understands the ECHL. Many other college hockey programs don't know what the ECHL is about.
CHN: You certainly knew a lot of college coaches, too.
Thomas: I would talk to coaches consistently about their players coming out. But I was in a spot where the Aces were a successufl team. We just knocked them out of the plaoiyffs on the way to the finals. I figured if there was an opportunity for me to get in, maybe this was an area where my name was known.
CHN: So you could get a visa to coach in pro, but not in college?
Thomas: I was a graduate assistant for Shawn Walsh, and then Timmy's (Whitehead) interim year. I had a couple offers within college hockey, but to get an H1B Visa, I needed five years experience. In pro, they can get anything. You need a P1 Visa, which needs four years of related experience, which includes playing. So I had two years of junior, four years of college, and coached three years. It's just on hockey experience, whereas the H1B is on work experience. And then there's other issues, like NAFTA. Before that, Canadians could go across and work in certain walks of life.
CHN: You had something in common with former UAA coach Dave Shyiak. He had immigration issues at one point, too, while he was already head coach.
Thomas: Dave and I would talk about it. The green card is special, it allows you to work. And they can't take it away unless you don't follow the rules.
CHN: Did you have concerns following him, given your relationship with him?
Thomas: It's never easy for someone to lose their job. But one thing as hockey guys, we all know that we're in a very competitive, high stress situation. Campbell Blair (Shyiak's assistant who also applied for the job) and I lived together at Maine, so it's the same things. We're hockey guys.
CHN: Did you have reluctance to apply for the job given the turmoil that surrounded the program at that point?
Thomas: I didn't. Because in my dealings through the interview process, they showed commitment to elevating the program and upgrading the program. It's one of the situations when you see change or turmoil, you ask where's the commitment level. And that was one of my first questions. And I think it was answered in a genuine and believable way. When it was said and done, this is a hockey town. ... This is hockey country. The administration has been vocal and up front about things going forward. There's a rich tradition up here, and what everyone is hoping to see is a return to those days where the building was standing room only and there was a buzz in town.
We all know how tough college hockey is. Guys don't leave these jobs. Just look at Jack (Parker) and Jerry (York) and Red (Berenson). These guys have good jobs, great environments to be in, and people don't want to leave it.
CHN: By the same token, there's been more turnover than ever in recent years, and seemingly more pressure to win.
Thomas: The biggest thing is, we're getting into a situation where salaries are increasing and, as a result, much like college football, expectations become higher. They think, "We're paying you, get the job done." So it's definitely changed.
CHN: Are you more used to that, having come from the pros?
Thomas: It doesn't make it much easier, but you do get used to it. But one thing that everyone forgets to realize is, nobody will put more pressure on a coach and team than the coach and team will put on itself. We love the pressure. We don't melt or shy away from it. We take that challenge head on. At the pro level, I took teams that were near the bottom and turned teams around, and that to me was a fun challenge. I'm not gonna lie and says I wouldn't love to inherit a national champion that has all the building blocks in place. But there's a great feeling in turning things around.
A lot of people will wonder if I can do here what I did there. They are two different worlds (college and pro). But the thing that's constant is, players have to play a game and come together and win hockey games. The environment the players were in, the academic element here that you contend with, it's another thing guys have on their plate. The thing you get (in college) is a great support staff. From the athletic department to your staff. I have Josh Ciocco and T.J. Jindra who really take a lot off my plate, and we hired Steve Thompson as Director of Hockey Operations.
We have three young guys who have a lot of time to spend on this program and don't have to pick kids up from day care. I knew it was gonna take a lot of work. Someone gave me a chance back in the day, and I think you get rerwarded when you give people the opportunity, and I wanted to build my staff around that. I wanted to be able to grow with the guys. But there's a lot of experience too. Josh is from UNH and he knows how to really be in a great spot, to create a culture. TJ, himself being a Notre Dame alum under Jeff Jackson and Paul Pooley and Andy Slaggert, knowing how to get a program from one level to the next and the day-to-day of what it takes to succeed.
CHN: The built-in rivalry with Fairbanks. Is that something you're already hearing about from the community, the pressure to get back on even footing with them?
Thomas: It's awesome what (Fairbanks) has done. There's a standard set that you can win in Alaska, you can create a program that can be successful. (Coach) Dallas (Ferguson) and his staff have been able to do it. If anything, it motivates us to get to that level. Dallas and them are great guys, and we love the rivalry. It's what really excites me about college hockey. At Maine, when we went down to The Whit (at UNH), there's nothing better, or to (BU's) Walter Brown on a Friday night. Fairbanks really gives us that extra push. Every program has that program that makes sure it pushes them and stays on top of their game. That's what makes our game special, the rivalry element. It's the ultimate separator from pro hockey.
CHN: What are you hearing from people about the new-look WCHA? Many people were concerned about "stepping down," but it also provides a great opportunity. And if you can win more against more equal competition — winning breeds winning.
Thomas: Quinnipiac is a great model for us. Union, Lowell, Merrimack, Ferris State. It's not necessarily Minnesota and Boston College. Obviously they're always near the top, but there's room. It was tough being a Division II program, competing in a conference that had so many big programs. It's like UAA hoops playing in the PAC-12. It's a tough place to be super-competitive. With the new WCHA and the programs that are in it, there's a consistent level from school to school as to where their hockey program sits, and the rest of the athletic department. It's going to create a greater sense of rivalry, a greater sense of supremacy. Every single coach has talked about how competitive and how hardened the winner of the WCHA will be, because every game will be 60 minutes of strong work ethic and complete execution to win.
As cliche as it sounds, we're not going to set goals outside of what we need to do Friday. When we complete that goal, we're going to re-establish goals for Saturday. And come March, we're in a playoff position, and we understand internally what we need to do. If we can get to that level, truly get as a team how we have to play to win, then we've accomplished a great goal and acomplished an opportunity.