When the announcement came on June 28 that seven members of the WCHA men’s league planned to form a new conference that would begin play in the 2021-22 season, Alaska, Alaska Anchorage and Alabama Huntsville were faced with impending conference homelessness.
For the financially strapped Alaska programs, the situation has become increasingly dire over the past four weeks. With the University of Alaska system facing a $135 million budget cut — a reduction of 41% from last year’s state funding — the future of college hockey on the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses is in doubt.
On Monday, University of Alaska regents voted to declare financial exigency, a move that could expedite downsizing, including the elimination of academic programs and layoffs of tenured faculty. What that means for the hockey programs isn’t clear yet. The regents, according to the Anchorage Daily News, are expected to determine specific cuts over the next two months. They next meet on Tuesday to discuss plans to address the cuts.
Among the restructuring models presented to the regents by university system President Jim Johnsen was elimination of one or more of the university’s three main campuses — Anchorage, Fairbanks and Southeast in Juneau.
“Unfortunately, we are, right now, grappling with survival,” regents chairman John Davies told the Daily News.
How the Alaska schools’ situation immediately affects the WCHA is yet to be seen. Men’s Commissioner Bill Robertson said the conference is preparing for the upcoming season while keeping an eye on the developments in Alaska.
“We are monitoring that situation closely with both the administration and athletic departments at Anchorage and Fairbanks and have stayed in close touch on that,” Robertson said. “What we’re told right now is we need to prepare for the start of the year, and that’s what we’re doing. We can’t prognosticate what is going to play out.”
With that in mind, Robertson said the conference also has made contingency plans for the 2019-20 season. “We’ve worked on the potential for new schedules should one or either team not be able to compete, but it’s our hope and plan that both Anchorage and Fairbanks will be playing in the WCHA this year,” Robertson said. “This is a real fluid situation.
“In the state of Alaska, there’s more than just athletics that are on the line here, so we’re sensitive to what’s happening and want to support them the best we can.”
This isn’t the first time the Alaska programs have faced possible elimination. In 2016, the programs for the Seawolves (Anchorage) and Nanooks (Fairbanks) were targeted to be eliminated in a cost-savings proposal that the regents eventually declined to adopt.
This time, the situation might be worse. Inside Higher Ed reported that Alaska Anchorage Chancellor Cathy Sandeen gave a conservative estimate of 700 faculty positions that might have to be eliminated across the university system. If academics require a hit that big, could the two hockey programs survive the cuts?
Meanwhile, the seven schools that are breaking away from the WCHA — Minnesota State, Bemidji State, Bowling Green, Ferris State, Lake Superior State, Michigan Tech and Northern Michigan — remain in the early stages of forming the new conference, according to athletics consultant Morris Kurtz, who made the June 28 announcement.
Kurtz, who served as St. Cloud State’s athletic director from 1984 to 2012 and oversaw hockey as an assistant AD at Penn State from 2012 to ’15, said there have been no new developments in the yet-to-be-named conference. “The process has been initiated with the letter we submitted on June 28,” he said. “We’re looking forward to checking those boxes as we move toward the league becoming official in time for the 2021-22 season.”
Kurtz empathized with the financial situation of the Alaska programs. “Isn’t that devastating?” he said. “I’m not sure I’m different from anyone else who’s been reading in the media. Will the institutions be there? Will the entire athletic departments be there? It’s such a stressful time for those institutions right now that it’s anyone’s guess what the future holds.”
The University of Alaska’s regents vote to declare financial exigency caught Kurtz’s attention. “That allows the people in authority to make some very serious cuts academically and athletically,” he said. “Everyone’s waiting to see what happens up there.’’