Wednesday, 31 July 2019

Seawolves And Nanooks Threatened

We hear about climate change on almost a daily basis and the effects of that climate change on the environment and communities of the north. Like what would happen to this University of Alaska-Fairbanks logo made of ice through climate change, it seems that the institution's ability to be a leader on the world stage for academics and athletics may be melting away after announcements of budget cuts were made earlier this year that will see the University of Alaska suffer greatly. Not only is this announcement a major problem for the school, but the cuts were implemented on July 1. Like climate change, the need to act now is upon the regents of the University of Alaska, and it sounds like the hockey programs at the various campuses across the state may be amalgamated into one hockey program.

For those that aren't aware, the University of Alaska is broken into three main campuses that offer their own accreditation for a student's selected subject of study. Each of these three main campuses also has specific satellite campuses that aid in reaching students in smaller communities. In total, the University of Alaska system has 19 campuses that server more than 30,000 students with degrees offered in approximately 400 subjects. Among the departments that have brought the University of Alaska notoriety are the geography, wildlife biology, and atmospheric science departments.

Why am I writing about this, you ask? The University of Alaska has seen its budget cut by 41% - nearly $136 million! - that has forced the University of Alaska Board of Regents to make some tough choices which, of course, has put the various sports that operate at the University of Alaska directly into the crosshairs when it comes to cuts. As it stands, the University of Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves and the University of Alaska-Fairbanks Nanooks could be amalgamated into one team after the Regents voted to merge three separately-accredited institutions into one accredited university with multiple locations this afternoon.

With two Division-1 men's hockey teams, there will likely be cuts to one or both programs that may see one of the programs eliminated entirely if the school does simply become the University of Alaska. Under that umbrella, there wouldn't be an option for two D1 men's hockey programs, so something would have to give. Does that mean that either the Nanooks or the Seawolves are on the verge of demise? Does the school rebrand altogether?

Those questions may be premature based on the debate among the Regents today. While the discussion is still on the table as to what the next steps are when it comes to becoming the University of Alaska proper, there are already proposed budget cuts that have been submitted from each of the three main campuses. Athletics, unfortunately, does take a hit on each of these proposals.
In Tegna Hanlon's tweet, the Anchorage campus (UAA) where the Seawolves call home has proposed a $4 million budget cut - half of their funding - to all athletics. The Fairbanks campus, where the Nanooks call home, have zero cuts in their proposal, but they do call for increased private support of their athletic programs by $750,000. While the two campuses are taking a different approach in how they achieve their financial goals for athletics, the fact that Fairbanks hasn't implemented cuts to their athletic program seems to indicate a commitment to their D1 hockey program.

Of course, I could be entirely wrong on this as well.

What I do know is that if this movement towards making the University of Alaska into one large, state-wide campus is the path the Regents have chosen, it's likely 20-25 men will have their hockey careers ended and dozens more staff and volunteers will no longer be involved in the game. That's not fair to those men and those people who work behind the scenes, so I'd hope that the University of Alaska will continue to honour scholarships granted after making the choice to, theoretically, cut a Division-1 men's hockey program. That would be the right thing to do, but I'm also not staring down a $136 million budget shortfall.

The University of Hawaii went through a major restructuring following budgets cut to their funding, and they went through some tough times. It's like that the University of Alaska will suffer the same problems that will see the school be forced to hike tuition costs and eliminate supplementary positions for staff. It may have to consider letting its Division-1 hockey program(s) move to the ACHA in order to save money on travel costs alone when one considers that the closest WCHA team to the state of Alaska is Bemidji State in Minnesota while the furthest would be in Huntsville, Alabama.

If you were wondering, there are 4037 miles between Fairbanks, Alaska and Huntsville, Alabama. The Divison-2 ACHA has teams that are almost exclusively played on the left side of the Rockies, and that would significantly reduce the travel costs normally associated with a Division-1 hockey club. This won't take the sting out of losing one of the two Division-1 teams currently playing in Alaska, but at least it isn't losing both teams in order to keep the university solvent.

Much like what happened in North Dakota with the women's hockey program falling a massive shortfall in state funding, it appears that at least one Division-1 men's hockey team will face the axe in the near future. It could be two, but I suspect that at least one of the two will survive as a lower-division NCAA team or even as an ACHA team.

It's never good when one speaks about the potential of losing a good hockey team due to budget shortfalls, but universities are places of academia first and athletics second. Or third. Or maybe even lower on the list. Athletics do bring schools a sense of notoriety and can add to the school's revenue depending on successes, but we can't forget that universities do more good with the degrees they award in their classrooms than the banners they hang up in their sporting venues.

No one will be happy with the outcome of these cutbacks, restructurings, and re-allocations. The University of Alaska will likely find itself struggling in the next few years as shown above, but they'll figure out how to make things work. And while both the Nanooks and Seavolves have legacies of great hockey, the new team - if that is what ultimately is decided for these two teams - will have a chance to write a new chapter in Alaska hockey history.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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