Thursday, August 5, 2010

Shyiak Goes Back To School To Learn Caps' Ways

Anchorage, Alaska is a beautiful place any time of the year, whether it’s in the winter when the average snowfall of 70 inches covers the beautiful landscape, or in the summer where the average temperature is a rather mild 68 degrees.

With factors like that, it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to leave the “The City of Lights”, University of Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves head hockey coach, Dave Shyiak, recently did just that; but only for a week, venturing 3,000-plus miles to steamy Arlington, Virginia for the Washington Capitals’ rookie camp.

“I know a couple of guys in the organization and they gave me a call last year to ask me if I’d be interested in coming in as a guest coach to find out how they run things and build a network with the organization.”

As the native of Brandon, Manitoba sees it, the arrangement was a win-win situation for both him and the Washington organization.

“Being here, I get to know how they run their organization, which is nothing but first class. They have great facilities with outstanding people with the big club and the affiliate in Hershey. It’s given me a unique look at how things are done at the professional level, and I’m certainly appreciative of the opportunity they gave me,” said Shyiak.

“From my personal perspective, I look at it as a form of personal growth and development. I asked a bunch of questions about how they did different things, like special teams, forechecking or what have you, and they took the time to answer my questions. This was a great setup for me for personal growth as a coach to be able to work with professional coaches to see how they do things.”

“For them, now they’ve got a college coach who now knows how they operate in case they need to look at some college free agents out west down the road who knows that league well.”

Shyiak played his college hockey at Northern Michigan University, where he learned a thing or two about overcoming adversity, most notably during the 1991 NCAA championship game where as a senior and co-captain of the Wildcats, his club upset the highly favored Boston University Terriers in the decisive game in triple overtime even though the Terriers’ lineup featured future NHL stalwarts, Tony Amonte, Shawn McEachern, and Keith Tkachuk.

After a year of professional hockey overseas, Shyiak returned to his alma mater in the 1995-96 season where he spent 10 seasons as an assistant coach before being named to skipper the Seawolves on June 14, 2005.

Shyiak’s tenure in Anchorage coincided with the arrival of a name that has become synonymous to fans of the Hershey Bears and Capitals for overcoming long odds, Jay Beagle.

“I was not a part of recruiting him to U-of-A, but at my previous school, I had identified him and liked him as a player,” said Shyiak of the only player from his tenure in Anchorage who has skated in the NHL. “It’s funny how it worked out, because we had used up all of scholarship money and couldn’t get him, and he went to U-of-A, and I ended up being very fortunate to coach him for two years.”

Ironically, it was at Washington’s rookie camp in the summer of 2007 that Beagle was first afforded the chances to show his wares to the Capitals’ brass, and obviously, as evidenced by his recently inked two-year pact, they liked what they saw.

“He was a guy who was a free agent coming out of college and spent a little time in the ECHL, which got him noticed and eventually got him an invite to this very camp a few years ago. From there, he impressed them enough for them to sign him, and he’s worked very hard for that.”

Shyiak continued, “He’s the kind of kid who got better and better as he aged, a typical late-bloomer type of player. The thing about him is, he works so darn hard, all of the time. He was an impact type player with us his second year as a sophomore. In that second year, in addition to being a great teammate and locker room leader, Jay was a dominant player down low as well as being an outstanding penalty killer and good faceoff guy.”

By virtue of being the sole NHL skater from Shyiak’s tenure in Anchorage, Beagle now finds himself the poster boy for the Seawolves’ recruitment efforts, a reminder to newcomer recruits that all is possible with hard work.

“In the years Jay played with us, I thought he was our best pro product, and I’m so glad it worked out well for him; he certainly deserves it and has earned every opportunity that he has been given.”

“We use him a lot as an example as to what’s possible. Not only wasn’t he a high draft pick, he wasn’t even drafted and look where he is now. He wasn’t a big numbers guy at the collegiate level either; all it was about him was his work ethic and work habits. He played with passion, played hard, and played with an edge, and that’s what got him here. We talk a lot about him and his story, and hopefully some other guys who come through our program will be able to achieve the goals that he has.”

Although Beagle probably gets top billing in most of the sales pitches that the Seawolves employ trying to entice students indoors to their campus, the many outdoor activities available in Anchorage give him a run for his money in that category. In fact, Beagle has acknowledged in the past that those outdoor activities were a big factor in getting him to commit to UAA, as he signed on the dotted line only three days after his first visit to the campus.

“I call Anchorage the Eighth Wonder of the World when I try to sell our school and program to recruits,” said Shyiak. “A lot of people, when they hear about Alaska, say they want to go there, but to get the opportunity to actually live there like myself, and play there like Jay did, is amazing.”

“You’ve got world-class hunting and fishing, and the skiing is great too. The scenery is beautiful, and Anchorage is a great city. You’ve got the ocean on one side and the mountains on the other. So, you’ve got those things outdoors, and indoors at our school, players have an opportunity to play in the WCHA which is probably the strongest collegiate league in the U.S.”

One of the few potential downsides for students looking to skate with the Seawolves can be the taxing travel the team is forced to endure due to the geographic location, and the travel factor played a big part in accelerating Beagle’s move to the pro ranks despite having remaining college eligibility.

“I really didn’t have much choice but to turn pro,” said Beagle. “I was struggling in school just to make the grades to stay eligible; to travel that much and to play hockey, it’s difficult.”

Shyaik, who was an outstanding student during his time spent in Marquette, garnering All-Academic Team honors, was quick to realize the travel problems that plagued Beagle, so he, along with his staff, has taken the necessary steps to make the road more travel-friendly for his charges.

“You just have to get used to the travel,” he said. “We have a pretty strict regimen that we follow as far as conditioning. Just as the Capitals and Bruce here strongly believe in conditioning, we do also. We tell our guys to make sure they always get a lot of rest and eat properly, but we also monitor them on and off the ice to make sure they are prepared for the demanding travel and schedule that we have. Honestly, though, the travel factor has not been an issue the last few years because the guys have followed the training program closely; we’ve been able to take that factor out of the equation.”

Shyiak and company, after finishing the 2009-10 season with nine conference wins and 20 in-conference points, face the 2010-11 season with holes to fill both on the ice, where both goaltenders have departed, and also behind the bench where the assistant coach’s position is now open due to former assistant coach, Regg Simon, taking a head-coaching position in the USHL.

With so many question marks presenting themselves, it would be easy for Shyiak to sulk and wallow, but he has opted to take a more optimistic approach to the huge challenges ahead for his club.

“We’ve got a young team; in fact we are going to be the youngest team in the league because we lost ten guys and also both goaltenders. I think for us to take a jump in our league, our goaltending has to be very strong. I have confidence that the two guys coming in will be able to stabilize that position for us,” he said assertively.

“It’s going to be an ongoing work in progress this season, but I think we should be able to finish in the top six. This team looks like it’s going to be a young, hungry, quicker team, and who knows what can happen when you combine all of those things?”