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Alaska Fairbanks opts out of 2020-21 men’s hockey season

The Alaska schools’ decisions will make the Western Collegiate Hockey Association an eight-team league when conference play begins in January.

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FAIRBANKS, Alaska -- Like its 49th State rivals, Alaska Fairbanks has opted out of the 2020-21 men’s hockey season.

The Nanooks’ in-state rival, Alaska Anchorage, had previously announced last month that it was opting out of the season . The UAA decision effectively ended the program since it had been announced in August that the Seawolves would fold following the 2020-21 season, though a fundraising effort is being made to save the team.

The Alaska schools’ decisions will make the Western Collegiate Hockey Association an eight-team league when conference play begins in January.

UAF chancellor Dan White made the announcement Friday that the school’s hockey and basketball teams will not compete this season due to health and safety concerns regarding the coronavirus pandemic.

The university had previously remained open about the possibility of playing this season. That was contingent on the status of the COVID-19 pandemic, however. Case numbers have increased dramatically in recent weeks across the country, including in Alaska.

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"The health and safety of our student-athletes is paramount," White said in a news release. "Participation in indoor contact sports like basketball and hockey creates elevated risk to the athletes and those who train and travel with them."

The university will honor student-athletes’ scholarships.

"We were all hoping that conditions would improve so that our teams could compete," athletic director Keith Champagne said in the release. "While we know our teams are disappointed about not being able to compete, our first job is to provide a safe training and competition environment. This decision, while difficult, helps protect the health of our student athletes and paves the way for a successful return to play next season."

Alaska hockey head coach Erik Largen expressed his disappointment with the university’s decision on Twitter. “Disappointed by this decision without consultation from coaches, players and trainers. We have mitigation plans in place. We want to play! Let us compete!” his tweet reads.

The Nanooks had originally been scheduled to play four games in December against Alaska Anchorage to open the season. Once the Seawolves canceled their season, UAF’s first scheduled game became a Jan. 1 contest at Lake Superior State.

WCHA schedules have, again, taken a hit in the wake of Alaska’s decision. Bemidji State had been scheduled to travel to Fairbanks on Jan. 22-23 for what was to be the teams’ lone meeting this season.

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“We realize this was a challenging and tough decision,” WCHA men’s league commissioner Bill Robertson said in a statement. “We respect Chancellor Dan White and Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and Athletics Keith Champagne’s wishes to opt out of the 2020-21 WCHA Men’s League season. All of us at the WCHA wish UAF nothing but success in the future with their hockey program.”

The WCHA had previously stated in a Nov. 13 news release that league members had until Nov. 17 to notify the conference if they intended to opt out of the WCHA for 2020-21.

Alaska is the 10th Division I men’s hockey program to sit out the 2020-21 season.

The Nanooks face an uncertain future without a conference affiliation beyond this season. The WCHA is in its final season before seven programs depart to form the new Central Collegiate Hockey Association.

Austin Monteith is the former sports editor at the Bemidji Pioneer. A native of Bloomington, Ill., he is a 2015 graduate of Butler University. Follow him on Twitter at @amonteith92. Contact the Pioneer sports department at sports@bemidjipioneer.com.
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