Alaska’s Hill returns to the U

Lou Raguse

Before the 1999-2000 season, the Minnesota men’s hockey team landed Colorado College’s successful coach Don Lucia. In addition, Minnesota opted to sign Lucia’s assistant coach John Hill.

As a pair, the duo had guided the Tigers to four NCAA appearances, amassing a 113-45-12 record.

Once in Minneapolis, they assembled a recruiting class that included now-seniors Grant Potulny, Matt Koalska, Troy Riddle and Jon Waibel.

But after two seasons, Hill left Minnesota to become headman at Alaska-Anchorage while the Gophers team he helped build won the national championship.

Now, in his third season as coach of the Seawolves, Hill returns to Minnesota for the first time as an opposing head coach to face the seventh-ranked Gophers (18-11-3, 11-10-1 WCHA) at Mariucci Arena.

“We’re looking forward to it,” Hill said. “I wish we were healthy, but I know our kids will enjoy the environment and atmosphere at Mariucci Arena.”

Alaska-Anchorage (10-15-3, 7-14-3) has lost its last four games and will likely be playing without freshmen Charlie Kronschnabel and Mark Smith.

However, this season is a far cry from last year’s campaign in which the Seawolves finished winless in league games and with only one victory overall.

On Dec. 6, Alaska-Anchorage earned a 6-4 victory over the Gophers after being shut out the night before. The win was the Seawolves’ first over Minnesota in their last 11 meetings.

“They’ve made great strides this year,” Lucia said. “They’ve gotten points out of almost every weekend this year except the last two.”

For Hill, one of the biggest challenges at Alaska-Anchorage has been recruiting – something that came easier for him in Minnesota.

“When you’re in Minnesota, you have a program that’s rich in tradition, and you have a state that puts out a lot of excellent hockey players,” Hill said. “Kids grow up wanting to be Gophers.”

Hill and his staff do much of their recruiting in western Canada and spend a good amount of time convincing their in-state stars to stay home – which can be a lot of work.

“It’s tough for him to get the guys he wants,” Koalska said. “It’s so far away. If they come down here then play Wisconsin the next week, they’re away from home for two weeks. It has to be tough for those guys.”

Long road trips three time zones east of home are a burden, but it doesn’t help that Alaska-Anchorage’s hockey program hasn’t had a lot of success in the WCHA.

The Seawolves have never had a winning season in the WCHA since joining the league in 1993.

Hill said that the best recruits tend to go where they will have the best chance of winning.

“A kid who grows up in Minnesota knows that at the University of Minnesota, you’re going to be successful, you’re going to win hockey games and you’re going to play for championships,” Hill said.

While Hill currently works at turning around Alaska-Anchorage’s program, perennially picked to finish last in the WCHA, he was happy seeing his Minnesota recruits and former head man Lucia have success the last two years.

“Getting to know them and their families was a lot of fun,” Hill said. “I’m certainly happy they’ve won two national championships and to be honest, I hope they can three-peat.”