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University and Seawolf support group explore options for a new UAA hockey arena

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Last month, the University of Alaska Anchorage hockey team wrapped up its most successful season in a decade.

The Seawolves posted a 15-17-2 record, knocking off a number of ranked teams during the course of the season.

Now, the team that in 2021 saved itself from elimination by the University of Alaska Board of Regents is looking for some new digs.

Officials from UAA and the Seawolf 5th Line, a hockey support group contracted by the university, say they are moving forward with developing a plan to renovate and expand the Avis Alaska Sports Complex.

The plans are still in a very preliminary stage, according to Ryan Buchholdt, UAA’s vice chancellor for administrative services. But while the process is still in the early going, he said there’s a very clear vision for the size and type of facility along with the user groups that could benefit from it.

“Our goal is to have a full (Division I) facility with as much as 3,000 seats on the campus so that the community is coming to the campus to attend our games,” Buchholdt said. “We think it can be a focal point for hosting youth leagues as well as other intramural hockey community games here on the campus. Much like the Alaska Airlines Center is able to do for court sports, we envision a facility that can really start to meet that need for the hockey community and ice sport community going forward.”

[Group pitches revitalization of Anchorage’s Chester Creek sports area to provide land for housing and retail]

Buchholdt said the plan being explored now involves a public-private partnership that includes working with a developer on a proposal that would include associated university land development. He said that in the next few months, a more defined plan will likely be released to the public.

The preferred plan is to maintain the new facility on the footprint that currently houses the Avis Alaska Sports Complex, with both a renovation of the current arena and additional construction occurring at that site. According to Buchholdt, the arena would ideally be expanded to house two ice sheets, a practice sheet and a performance sheet.

That “not only would allow us to meet our needs, but more community needs, and really start to look at us being able to host more tournaments and maybe create some features that the hockey community and ice sports culture just doesn’t have right now,” Buchholdt said.

The Avis Alaska Sports Complex now includes a court, a pool and fitness center. A new facility may also include a track and turf, although Buchholdt said upgrades could be phased in as financing became available.

College hockey venues range significantly in size and standard.

The University of North Dakota’s Ralph Engelstad Arena and the University of Minnesota’s 3M Arena at Mariucci both seat more than 10,000 fans. Both schools are perennial national title contenders.

At a capacity of 800, the Avis Alaska Sports Complex is the smallest venue to host a Division I college hockey team, according to College Hockey News. The Carlson Center in Fairbanks, which hosts UAF games, holds almost 4,600 people.

UAA head hockey coach Matt Shasby said a new facility would be especially important for recruiting, especially since the transfer portal has become such a significant factor in college athletics. Student-athletes are transferring at record rates, opening up a whole other recruitment process that wasn’t part of the equation even five years ago.

Given some of the geographic hurdles and the fact that UAA plays as an NCAA Division I independent, Shasby said having a facility as a recruitment tool is vital.

“It’s recruiting,” Shasby said. “It’s long-term sustainability of your program by offering larger seating capacity to grow your fan base and to enjoy your product and to help pay for funding the program.”

Shasby said there hasn’t been any significant investment into hockey facilities in nearly 30 years, and the right facility could provide value for several user groups.

“You need to be very thoughtful about it,” Shasby said. “You’re not just building four walls and tossing a rink in. You’re trying to create a new destination for both (UAA) and youth hockey and for the next 30 years. … There needs to be a reinvestment into that market.”

The Avis Alaska Sports Complex is just one of the Anchorage facilities that local groups have identified for a potential upgrade. The Alliance for the Support of American Legion Baseball in Anchorage is seeking support for a proposal that would call for a rebuilt Mulcahy Stadium at the Chester Creek Sports Complex. Versions of the plan include a major overhaul of the area, which would include adding housing and commercial space.

“I’m born and raised in Anchorage and definitely used a lot of our recreating facilities that came about through the Project 80s effort,” Buchholdt said. “They are tired, and I think we are definitely primed as a community to come up with a vision of what recreating in Anchorage looks like long-term and what is the right place to really start to put those visions and those ideas together.”

As UAA and the Seawolf 5th Line home in on what they believe is the most viable plan, they are exploring the possibility of enticing potential developers with a broader proposal that includes other projects at the university. Buchholdt said the university is in discussions with the Board of Regents and policymakers to determine scale and specifics of any potential larger development. He said a consultant has been brought into the process to help detail what a developer would look for in a potential project.

“I think our goal right now is, see what we can get through partnerships with the developer,” Buchholdt said. “And then start to look at, well, if we really want to bring that piece into the first phase, what is the additional funding that would need to come either from fundraising, local or state support?”

The Seawolf 5th Line said it would be prepared to assist with fundraising once that stage is reached. The group, formerly known as Save Seawolf Hockey, was formed to help save the Seawolves from extinction in 2020 and was the driving force in raising the $3 million needed to fully reinstate the team. Now the group is contracted with the university to assist with Seawolf hockey on fundraising, marketing and gameday functions.

“We will gear up to be able to help with that fundraising,” Seawolf 5th Line president Kathie Bethard said. “We have a lot of friends we’ve made through our efforts for the past 4 1/2 years, and we’ll go back to talk to people to about how they can help to make this a reality.

“We saved the team. They’re doing amazing. Let’s give them a decent place to play. So we’re all behind that.”

Buchholdt said the Seawolf 5th Line has also been instrumental in connecting UAA with other universities that have been able to successfully utilize a public-private partnership for similar projects.

“We have this great opportunity to learn from other universities that have walked this path, what they would have done differently, so that we can set ourselves up for hopefully some better success on our journey,” Buchholdt said.

Sullivan Arena was the Seawolves’ home rink for many years, but in 2019 the university announced it would be taking home games back to campus. In the succeeding five years, Sullivan was used primarily as a homeless shelter. Despite the fact that it has reopened for the purpose of hosting sports and entertainment events, many in the hockey community have been anticipating the possibility of a new venue for years.

“I think the hockey community, you’ll just see them elevate as soon as the university can announce that this is the way forward, this is what we’re looking at,” Bethard said. “They’re just kind of champing at the bit, so to speak, to get this up and running.”

(Correction: A previous version of this story referred to the Seawolf 5th Line as a booster group. The organization is a nonprofit support group that is contracted with the university to work with Seawolf hockey on fundraising, marketing and gameday functions.)

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