After the program was reinstated in 2021, the Seawolves have been competing as an independent school.
By Avery Williamson
Throughout their 40-plus years as an NCAA hockey team, the Seawolves have been part of various storied conferences and have periodically competed as an independent school. Since reinstatement, UAA faces rivals as an independent.
NCAA Division I independent schools are teams that have an NCAA ice hockey program but are not members of a conference.
Arizona State University, Long Island University, Lindenwood University, Stonehill College, Augustana University, the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the Seawolves are currently independent schools. Arizona State will join the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) and Augustana will compete in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA) starting in the 2024-25 season.
On the schedule, fans typically see independents facing each other throughout the season. Without a set schedule or requirements to play teams within a designated conference, independent schools often form scheduling alliances, an informal agreement between athletic teams to guarantee a set number of games.
When the independent rival is also an in-state rival, the opportunities to go head-to-head increase. Following the Jan. 13 and Feb. 3 games against Fairbanks, UAA will have played UAF, the other Alaska Division I independent hockey team, in 12 contests over the past two seasons.
The Seawolves play Arizona State four times this year, and twice each for Lindenwood, LIU and Augustana. UAA also regularly competes against the Air Force Academy, facing them twice this season and last season.
Outside of playing other independent schools, UAA Head Coach Matt Shasby strives to schedule games against a range of schools.
“When scheduling, we are looking for a variety of opportunities, quality of opponent and game experience,” said Shasby. “We want to play both opponents who are in the top 30 ranking and teams who are more at our level. Our players really appreciate getting to play the best in college hockey.”
As a member of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association prior its termination in 2021, the Seawolves used to mostly play against western schools. To compete in the WCHA, the university’s hockey facility must seat at least 2,500 people. The Avis Alaska Sports Complex currently seats 800. The WCHA gave the Seawolves permission to move from the Sullivan Arena to the on-campus rink, assuming the Avis Alaska Sports Complex would undergo an expansion immediately.
However, when the teams resumed play for the 2021-22 season, the Seawolves and UAF Nanooks were left out, without a conference.
The Seawolves cannot join any conference until they have an arena with adequate seating capacity–at least 2,600 spectator seats–and modern amenities, such as adequate locker rooms (at least two or four is preferred) to allow for 22 hockey lockers, showers, toilet facilities, and adequate disability seating and access to the arena.
There are both advantages and disadvantages to competing as an independent school.
“It can be challenging to schedule games in the middle of the season when other institutions are in conference play,” said UAA Athletic Director Ryan Swartwood. “An advantage is our ability to craft a home schedule that includes a variety of opponents. I’m impressed with Coach Shasby’s ability to build a strong schedule that has us competing against top Division I programs.”
Additionally, it’s rare that a team is able to play such a variety of schools. “Our road game experience is different every season,” said Shasby.
“We are going to new buildings and visiting new cities. When you are in a conference you are playing the same teams for four years and a player really misses out on a large portion of college hockey. We really promote being an independent, because the experiences you will get over a four-year period is the most unique in all of college hockey.”
In the past two years, being an independent schools has allowed UAA to compete against ranked Division I rivals, including #6 Wisconsin, UMass, ranked #11 and #13 in respective years, #14 Western Michigan and #15 Penn State.
The Seawolves return to the ice on Jan. 13 to take on Alaska Fairbanks in Fairbanks. They’ll hit the road the following weekend to play Providence University.
Anchorage fans are encouraged to join the official watch party at Las Margaritas, located at 541 W. Dimond Blvd.