Q&A With ... Alaska Coach Lance West
Dallas Ferguson decided to step down as head coach at Alaska, relatively late in the offseason, for a job in major junior. That opened the door for long-time assistant Lance West, a native of Penticton, B.C., and a graduate of Alabama-Huntsville, to take over the top spot.
West takes over a situation that is among the toughest in college hockey, for many reasons. First, attracting outsiders to Alaska has never been easy. Then, in recent years, the team is in the new-look WCHA, which has a lower profile than it used to have. And the school has been facing a budget crunch, where, at one point, it was recommended that the hockey program be dropped. That is no longer on the table, but the perception remains in some places.
CHN: You've been there so it's not new, but how's the adjustment?
West: I've been here almost 10 years, I recruited these guys. They've made it a good transition with a positive attitude and work ethic. We have 22 returning players and I think that made it pretty easy. There's always fires you have to put out, but that's to be expected. But I've been really happy with the way we've transitioned and the way the guys have responded.
CHN: Did you have an inkling that Dallas was leaving?
West: I didn't know if I ever really thought he was. He's been a big part of the program. If he was going to try to move up and on, I was never really sure 100 percent. But I always knew that he had the goal of coaching in the NHL one day, he never keopt that a secret from me. I knew there would be a day he'd leave, but I wasn't sure when that would be.
CHN: How smooth was it in going right to you? Did you have to wait a while to find out or did they indicate pretty quickly it was going to be your job?
West: I don't think it was a long time, but it was a late change. I've been around college long enough to know the administration needs to take some steps. But they did let me know fairly quickly what the route they were going to take was. So we were able to have some discussions about that. They reached out and did some homework, so hopefully I can reward them for that.
CHN: It's not a bad thing to say a coach has other aspirations. You can't expect them to stay forever. But did they want to make sure they would have someone who likes it there and would at least want to be there a while?
West: We hear a lot about — do people want to come here. People who are up here love it here. And it's a battle you always face and it's frustrating at times. But my daughter was born here and she considers it home, and when we travel other places, she can't wait to get back here. So it's misunderstood in my opinion. We've enjoyed it here. My wife is from Alabama and she's out there doing dog sledding and having different experiences. It all depends on what kind of person you are and how open you are to things. There's people who put in their time and come and go, and people who stay and enjoy it. There's no guarantee — contracts are for a certain length and opportunties come up for everyone, for administrators, for players. So you can never say where you'll be in 10 years or 5 years, but you have the intent to be there and do the right things while you're there.
CHN: It's also no secret that there was issues with the Alaska schools. People in hockey are always crossing their fingers for you guys, for what that's worth. The word is you guys are safe now, but it's been difficult to get any higher-up administrator to say that officially.
West: I don't know what needs to be said or not said. It was typically probably a little misunderstood of the process. They did a review of all the departments, and they had a Strategic Pathway about how to deal with the financial issues. And I don't think we're alone in this stuff. There's other schools that have had to cut programs. So, we were the first ones to [be talked about] on campus, and the first to make the media and it was talked about by the Board and the President, and they decided not to make any changes. So I don't know what else needs to be said. If people want to keep saying, "No one has officially done anything or said anything," well, I don't know what the next step is. I know what I've been told, and we're moving forward and have a program. I try not to be negative. My message is always positive. It's something we're going to deal with with recruits, but I don't know if people are looking for an official letter or whatever. I don't know how to combat that. If people want to know where you're going to be in 10 years, I don't think anyone knows that. But we have the resources to be successful now and we're going forward, and there's no restriction on that.
CHN: A few years ago, before a lot of this started happening, you were doing well for a number of years [Alaska made its only NCAA tournament in 2010]. So does that give you confidence you can get back to that point?
West: This program has a lot of support in the community, and the school [has put in] a lot of resources. And you have to believe in where you are and what you're doing. We've had some successful years and some we weren't, but that's the case for most programs. So we definiely feel we can get back where we want to be. Last year people picked us for the bottom, and we got to the sixth seed. Is there where we want to be? No. But it was a step in the right direction. Now we have to continue to move up.
CHN: What's the goaltending situation right now? [UAF's only incumbent decided to leave the program after a season in which his save percentage was sub-.900]
West: Young. We have three guys with zero minutes of college hockey played. But we also return nine defensemen who have all played at different points of their careers. We return a good group of forwards that are older. Anton [Martinsson] and Niko [DellaMaggiore] were both here last year and practiced all year. Anton was ineligible now he is — academically he had a 4.0 for the year. But guys also have confidence because they've been here for a year. That hasn't been discsused. You can tell how guys are if they believe in their goaltending, and that's a real positive sign.
CHN: Last year you scored about 2 goals a game. Do you expect that to go up, or do you expect the goaltending to be better? In other words, if you're going to make an area of improvement, where would it most likely come from?
West: We had five freshmen playing a lot of minutes up front last year, and you're going to have growing pains with that. We brought in some freshmen that we think can help our offense. I really believe our offense will be better. ... I'm not going to say our goaltending is going to be better or worse than last year, because until you see them [in games] you don't know. But we're confident our goaltending is going to get the job done, so we anticipate also our goaltending numbers will be better.