It was always the most exciting moment. Walking into the Sullivan Arena, lovingly referred to as the “Sully,” feeling the crisp cold air emanating off the ice and hearing the puck being slapped about during the pre-game skate around. This feeling was just as great for me in my 40s as it was when I was seven years old.
Anchorage has a long history with hockey including the rise and fall of the Alaska (and Anchorage) Aces, and the ups and downs of the University of Alaska Anchorage Seawolves moving from Division II, to a fledgling and short-lived conference, and to the preeminent conference in D1 college hockey at the time, the WCHA.
It was recently reported that the hockey, gymnastics, and swimming programs had been cut from UAA in their new budget to be submitted to the Board of Regents in September. The reported total savings of eliminating the hockey, gymnastics and swimming programs at UAA is only $2.5 million dollars. The state budget is approximately $4.5 billion dollars. The $2.5 million savings is a drop in the bucket in the state coffers. The value these sports provide Anchorage are worth far more than the miniscule percentage of the state budget that is UAA Athletics.
UAA fans got to see their beloved Wolves play some of the finest college hockey teams and players in the country, sharing their conference with the likes of Minnesota, Minnesota Duluth, St. Cloud State, Denver, North Dakota, Wisconsin and others. While the Seawolves were regular cellar dwellers, they were often competitive in individual games, especially on their own home ice at the Sully, the only Olympic sized arena in the WCHA. The Seawolves did enjoy three appearances in the NCAA D1 college hockey tournament in 1990, 1991, and 1992. They were also champions of the short-lived D1 Great West Hockey Conference in 1987.
My UAA Seawolves hockey fandom started when I was barely big enough to climb the steps of the Sully and continued as I became a UAA student and UAA Student Body President. From the years of 1998-2005, I didn’t miss a game and attended most games after that for years to come. One of the most exciting moments I remember was watching the massive underdog UAA Seawolves skate the NCAA Champion Boston College Eagles to a tie in their opening game in 2002. I attended games, sold souvenirs, and was even honored to be a judge in many different halftime competitions. It is fair to say that I have UAA hockey running through my veins.
During my time in student government at UAA I was honored to be a small part of the planning process for the new sports center on the UAA campus. By 2001, the committee I sat on had finalized a plan for a sports center that included a dual purpose hockey/basketball arena. The dream many of us had of an arena within walking distance of the residence halls with a giant seawolf in the middle of the ice was soon to be a reality – until the powers that be in the UAA Athletics Department squashed those dreams.
Somehow, behind closed doors, with no student input and with no discussions with student government leaders, the UAA Athletics Department halted plans on the arena that had been agreed upon and pushed forward. The Board of Regents instead opted for a much more expensive arena that did not include a hockey arena. The Athletic Department at the time was seemingly hostile against the hockey team. This later became the Alaska Airlines Center.
One incident I remember clearly is when student government introduced homecoming to the UAA landscape in 2002. We wanted to center the event around the hockey team. We selected a winter wonderland theme and wanted to introduce and celebrate the Seawolves hockey team at the event – an idea that was embraced by then head coach John Hill. Two days before the event happened I received a call from the Athletic Department informing me that under no circumstances would the team be participating in such an event and that I shouldn’t inquire about future events with the hockey team.
They went on to alienate hockey fans by closing the upper section of the Sullivan Arena, one of the favorite places for many hockey fans to sit, because it provided a clear view of the whole ice. The idea was to concentrate fans in the lower bowl of the arena, but the plan failed and many hockey fans stopped going to UAA games all together.
That administration is gone, and with a vote of the University of Alaska Board of Regents so will UAA hockey, but this doesn’t have to be the end.
Without the Aces to fill the hockey appetite of Anchorage, the University and the Municipality could still find a way to affordably bring Seawolves hockey back to the Sullivan Arena. The Sully is becoming more and more irrelevant in Anchorage and is currently set to be a homeless shelter for the foreseeable future.
The Governor’s Cup, future NHL players skating around the Sully, and preseason tournaments featuring powerhouse collegiate hockey teams from around the country need to remain a staple of Alaska hockey lore. The UA Regents need to reject this white flag of failure and encourage these staples in the world of Alaska sports to remain.
Mike Dingman was born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska. He has worked in Alaska politics since the late 90s. He is now a ”homegrown outsider” keeping up on his home state from the Lower 48.