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Penn State Hockey: A Series Against Alaska-Fairbanks Goes Beyond Sports

by on October 16, 2019 4:00 PM

On the edge of the world Fairbanks, Alaska acts as one of the last outposts in a wilderness that has swallowed up more than a few men in the long nights. Living in Alaska is difficult work — making a life in the bitter cold is a grind, no easier than melting the snow and ice that defines it.

But there is hockey. There has been hockey in Fairbanks since 1925 at least, a natural marriage between the cold and the people who call it home.

Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky knows that community well, five seasons spent at the helm of the Fairbanks program early in his head coaching career.

The challenge that faces Penn State’s opponent on Thursday and Friday night at Pegula Ice Arena is much larger than the Nittany Lions’ white-hot offense and the long flight from nearly the other side of the world. It’s about survival.

In all that snow, the University of Alaska system has been dealing with a crippling $135 million budget cut from the state government. It’s a cut that threatens the programs at both Alaska Anchorage and Fairbanks not to mention the university itself.

The news was only further compounded as seven members of the WCHA announced this summer their intention to leave the conference following the 2020-21 season, a move that resulted in both Alaskan schools (as well as Alabama-Huntsville) as the odd men out of an already difficult situation.

“While the current configuration has had its advantages,” UAF Chacellor Dan White said at the time. “UAF, the University of Alaska Anchorage and the University of Alabama-Huntsville have been financially disadvantaged in this conference, and a realignment may benefit all three universities in the long run.

“We are encouraged that there are a number of teams looking now, or will be looking soon, to join an NCAA Division I men's ice hockey conference. While disappointed in our WCHA colleagues' decision to leave, we look forward to the chance that lies ahead for building new partnerships.”

The overarching result is an uncertain future. Merging both athletic programs has been an immediate solution floated by administrators, but if the schools combine into a single accredited university, they would only be allowed to have one hockey program.

But in which city, Fairbanks or Anchorage, nearly six hours drive apart, would keep their hockey team? A question unanswered.

“I do have a ton of pride in the program and obviously want to see it continue for the community of Fairbanks but also for also college hockey.” Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky.

The challenges facing Alaskan schools are not entirely different than those facing small brand names across the sport. The expansion and realignment of college hockey comes with a cost, as large and financially stable athletic brands find a seat at the table, the slow elbowing out of smaller schools is a difficult obstacle to overcome even if unintentional.

A niche sport’s existential crisis is found at the intersection of small traditional powers competing against athletic programs not unfamiliar with hundred million dollar arms races. Penn State’s financial stability may not have directly delivered wins, but it may win the battle of attrition.

“I think it’s very important as a college community and a community of college hockey coaches to make sure we do everything we can to retain those programs,” Gadwosky added. “I think Penn Staters would love an experience to go up there and see a game, it’s a packed house, a lot of fun and it would draw a lot of similarities to Pegula Ice Arena that’s for sure.”

So as Alaska takes the ice on Thursday and Friday evenings, it’s a reminder of how fortunate Penn State is as a large brand flush with cash. Because there may not be hockey in Fairbanks next year, out at the edge of the world.

And if there is, only time will tell how long that lasts.

Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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