Inside the NHL
This marks the 50th year since Kathie Bethard and her late husband, Frank, relocated permanently to Alaska after being enchanted by its outdoor beauty during a vacation drive from California the previous summer.
The former UCLA students settled in Anchorage, started a family and, with their young sons, Brian and Todd, and daughter, Heather, became immersed within the sports community. When Frank’s banking industry colleague, Chuck Homan, helped launch a men’s hockey team at the University of Alaska-Anchorage in 1979, Bethard and her husband were recruited as board members for its Blueliner Booster Club.
She was from California and he from Oklahoma, so hockey wasn’t exactly in their blood. But they had quickly recognized its importance within their adopted state.
So when the UAA Board of Regents last summer voted to pull the plug on four decades of its Seawolves hockey program, blaming state budget cuts prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, Bethard, 75, sprang into action. She formed the Save Seawolf Hockey group, consisting of fans, alumni and local businesspeople, now more than halfway to raising the $3 million it needs by Aug. 30 to reverse the school’s decision and fund at least two more seasons.
“I just can’t imagine Anchorage any longer without having UAA hockey,” Bethard said. “It’s been so vital to our community.”
Her group got a huge boost last week when the Kraken announced it had raised more than $150,000 for the program-saving effort through private and group donations. Bethard said the money pushed her group’s fundraising to $1.8 million and — just as important — provided clout that prompted UAA to extend its initial February deadline while increasing overall awareness.
“The amount of interest this has created,” Bethard said, “goes well beyond a dollar amount.”
It took some luck to get the plight of an NCAA program more than 1,000 miles away on the Kraken’s radar. But Alaska, with Washington and Oregon, is part of the Kraken’s NHL-designated marketing territory and within signal reach of its new ROOT Sports television partner. Kraken CEO Tod Leiweke was on a business call in January with Jason Metrokin, the head of Anchorage-based Bristol Bay Native Corp., and said: “Tell me about the state of hockey in Alaska.”
Leiweke got an earful.
He was so moved by Metrokin’s tale of a recently widowed local grandmother that had “raised $1.3 million, mostly in $1 bills” that he arranged for a lengthy Zoom conversation with Bethard on Jan. 26. Afterward, Leiweke approached Kraken majority owner David Bonderman about helping.
“Hockey is a native sport there, and there’s a long legacy of hockey in Alaska,” Leiweke said. “The largest outdoor tournament in the world is in Alaska, and it’s a key part of our territory. So we want to do all we can to ensure hockey thrives there.”
Indeed, Alaska has a longstanding hockey culture, with native NHL players such as Scott Gomez, Brandon Dubinsky and former Seattle Thunderbirds junior stalwart Nate Thompson. The only two NCAA Division I men’s hockey programs on the West Coast are in Alaska, with UAA and the University of Alaska-Fairbanks — the latter of which was spared budget cuts.
Leiweke was moved by Bethard’s story and the community’s team-saving response.
He had been told about her husband dying in April 2019 at age 74 after a lengthy Alzheimer’s battle. Also, about the couple’s lives being entwined with the Seawolves since their debut — from year-round booster fundraising to organizing annual holiday-period meals for players when the campus was closed. Bethard remains in charge of scoreboard keepers and other off-ice officials at home games.
Their sons those early years would bang on the glass at the UAA Sports Center rink cheering on the Seawolves, inspired to pursue their own youth-hockey careers. The eldest, Brian, played at Colorado College, and Todd became a Seawolves defenseman from 1993-97.
“We would watch them play when they were in town and then hang out in the booster room and get autographs of the players,” Todd Bethard, 47, said of a childhood immersed in his parents’ UAA activities. “The vast majority of coaches we had growing up were ex-UAA players you watched when you were 3 or 4 years old. And so you kind of developed this hero-complex around them.”
After a brief pro fling in Germany, he returned home at age 24 and has since coached youth hockey, including his children’s teams. He feels the close timing of his father’s death and the school’s cuts made his mother’s quest highly personal.
“I mean, she was taking care of Dad, and that took up a lot of time,” he said. “And I think she took a lot of effort and time she would have otherwise been spending with Dad and put it to this. So I really think it does mean something to her on that level.”
Nine former Seawolves have reached the NHL, including Mike Peluso, Curtis Glencross and current Vancouver Canucks center Jay Beagle. Still, after a high-mark three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances from 1990-92, the Seawolves haven’t had a winning season since 1993.
Seawolves coach Matt Curley agreed that on-ice struggles likely contributed to fan malaise, as did pre-pandemic budget cuts that forced the team in 2019 to move from a 6,500-seat downtown arena — where it had played since 1983 — back to its original on-campus rink holding only 800.
But he’s encouraged by the community’s response — only a few of more than 1,000 campaign donors are from large corporations — calling it a “reawakening.” Two hockey alumni gave $25,000 apiece and are offering to match further UAA ex-player donations up to $50,000 total.
“It’s like, ‘We’re on the brink of losing it,’ ” he said. “I think that reality kind of hit a lot of people right between the eyes.”
And Kathie Bethard — who agreed this is “very personal” — wants what they save to be sustainable. The team, which skipped this season due to COVID-19, plans to play at least two seasons independently given the pending demise of its Western Collegiate Hockey Association.
The Kraken has pledged to help the Seawolves with marketing ideas that include possible fundraisers at Climate Pledge Arena home games and future tournaments in Seattle — much like the famed “Beanpot” event with local colleges in Boston — involving the two Alaska schools and other invited teams.
“This was a huge wake-up call for the community,” Bethard said. “We won’t let things get to this point ever again.”
Save Seawolf Hockey
Anyone wishing to donate to the campaign can go online at www.saveseawolfhockey.com or text the word “uaahockey” to the number 41444 to be directed to the donation link.