Matt Curley isn't expecting miracles.
The first-year coach of the UAA men's hockey team knows the challenges he faces taking over a program which has enjoyed one winning season in the past 25 years.
But at the very least, he'd like to turn some heads in his opening year on the bench.
"Our goal is to be better and leave it better than where it was when we started," Curley said. "Whether that's measured in wins and losses or the effort put forth Friday and Saturday nights or how we're viewed in the community or our perception on campus. That's our goal, to be viewed better as a program than what we have been. Our mantra is to move the needle to a noticeable degree. We want it to be seen that these guys are working their tails off and going in the right direction."
Curley, who was hired to replace Matt Thomas in April, takes over a team that was 4-26-4 last season (4-21-3 in the WCHA). Thomas, incidentally, was the coach to guide the Seawolves to their only winning season since 1992-93, an 18-16-4 mark in 2013-14.
"Starting anywhere new it's always tough," he said. "You get an idea of what's happened in the past, educate yourself on the history. For me, it's been a learning experience to see what's been going on here, learn from the past to try to make the future better. From a cultural foundation part is to build it up from the ground up in terms of who we are, what we represent and what we're going to be all about on and off the ice."
Curley's head coaching background is relatively brief — the last three seasons at the helm of the EC Red Bulls in Austria — but his overall coaching experiences are incredibly diverse. The 35-year-old Clarkson University (N.Y.) graduate has worked as a college assistant, a USHL assistant and a coach in the USA Hockey system. Curley said his recent stint overseas instilled an emphasis on communication, which he said will help him connect with everyone from potential recruits and current players to fans and alumni.
"I did not take your traditional path to this position and I know that," he said. "For three years I worked in a foreign country where English was the second language for all of my guys, where I was the outsider, where I had to learn how to adapt and meet halfway with what they were used to. The ability to communicate with the guys and be very transparent was a great learning experience."
The Seawolves will showcase a mix of returners and first-year players, many recruited by Thomas before his departure.
Curley pointed to senior forwards Nils Rygaard, Jeremiah Luedtke and Nicolas Erb-Eckholm as players he expects the offense to lean on early. Malcolm Hayes transferred from Hockey East powerhouse Maine and could provide an injection of talent to the Seawolves.
Curley said freshman Tanner Schachle, a freshman from Wasilla who played two seasons for the Fairbanks Ice Dogs, played well in the preseason. The team is still uncertain of the status of Alec Butcher, an Anchorage native who is waiting to hear from the NCAA regarding his eligibility this season after transferring from Sacred Heart. Butcher tallied 8 goals and 5 assists in 16 games with the Seawolves last season.
Curley said one of the biggest challenges for the Seawolves will be replacing graduated netminder Olivier Matha.
"In the net it's real interesting," he said. "Olivier Mantha has been a 4-year starter. You don't replace that. You're not going to. We have three guys in Kristian Stead, Brody Claeys and Kris Carlson who I feel all three are very capable goaltenders. All three will have the opportunity to show what they can do. We're excited to see what all three bring to the table."
That early timeshare was evident in last week's 5-1 exhibition win over Simon Fraser, in which each goalie played a period.
The most notable feature of UAA's 2018-19 schedule is a massive gap through the middle of the season where they are on the road. After a Nov. 9-10 home series against Bowling Green, the Seawolves don't have another home game until Jan. 4, the opener of a weekend series against Lake Superior State.
"Our schedule is always going to be difficult, it's just the nature of where we are geographically," Curley said. "We'll take advantage of it. I'm happy we're on the road as much as we are in the first half. It's a chance for myself and our staff to get to know these guys, not just on a hockey level, but on a personal level. There's a lot of value in spending time together at an airport, in a bus or hotel together and forge those relationships and trust and just generally getting to know each other better as people, not just player and coach. The other thing is when you're on the road early, you get to play at home late."
When they are in town, Curley hopes to make an impression on local hockey fans, and potentially draw in new fans who are left without a team when the Alaska Aces dissolved last year.
"It's no secret the success the Aces had," Curley said. "Their departure has left a void in the community in terms of not just hockey, but sports and entertainment and a home team to root for. As it pertains to hockey, it's a great hockey state and a great hockey city. It's a got a long history of producing some outstanding players. There's certainly a void there for us to be able to sneak in and pull some people over to our side to enjoy some great hockey. … All we can do is give them a reason to come support us, both in the community and on the ice."