FAIRBANKS—In recent years, head coach Dallas Ferguson and his assistant coaches had at least an idea of who would be the starting goaltender for the Alaska Nanooks when the college hockey regular season opened.
So far this year, it’s an equal opportunity competition among three netminders — senior Steve Thompson, sophomore Sean Cahill and freshman John Keeney.
Thompson, from Anchorage, sees the competition among himself, Cahill from Calgary, Alberta, and Keeney from Twin Peaks, Calif., as beneficial for the Nanooks, who are in their last season in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association before moving next season to the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.
“I think it’s really healthy. I think one of the things we lacked in the past few years is we didn’t have that competition, so sometimes guys got complacent,” Thompson said after Tuesday morning’s practice at the Patty Center. “I feel like practice habits and certain things kind of got on the wayside because of the fact that there wasn’t somebody pushing for that spot.”
Keeney is excited he gets the opportunity to compete to be a starting goaltender in his first season of NCAA Division I hockey rather than being relegated to a sitting and learning status.
“It’s great to have an opportunity to go in and play,” said Keeney, who spent the past three seasons with the Omaha (Neb.) Lancers and the Muskegon (Mich.) Lumberjacks in the Junior A-level United States Hockey League. “Knowing that all three goaltenders can play, it puts a lot of competition among the three of us,” Keeney said. “It makes us all work harder and whoever gets in there is going to play better because we’re all working harder toward it.”
Fans have even asked Ferguson about who is going to be between the pipes in the regular-season opener against the Air Force Academy on Oct. 12 in the Kendall Hockey Classic in Anchorage.
“Right now, everybody knows that there’s minutes to be had and somebody needs to be our starting goaltender,” Ferguson said. “Right now, it’s full marks on all three of them for competing hard. Now it’s going to get down to how are they performing in practice, and how are they going to give us the best to chance to win?”
Besides more practices, the candidates will be further evaluated during the Blue-Gold Game at *7 Saturday night in the Patty Center. The Nanooks also have an exhibition game against the University of Regina (Saskatchewan) at 6:15 p.m. Oct. 5 at the Carlson Center.
After Wylie Rogers — now a volunteer assistant coach for the Nanooks — completed his career in the 2007-08 season, Chad Johnson gained the starting goaltender role heading into his senior season (2008-09).
In his final season of college hockey, Johnson helped the Nanooks reach the Central College Collegiate Hockey Association Championship Tournament and earned the CCHA Player of the Year honor. Johnson, during this past summer, signed a free-agent contract with the National Hockey League’s Phoenix Coyotes.
Scott Greenham, then a sophomore, took over for Johnson in a 2009-10 season that was highlighted by the Nanooks’ first-ever appearance in the NCAA Division I National Tournament. When Greenham’s career ended last season, he had set team career records for wins (48), shutouts (11), goals against average (2.24) and saves percentage (.916).
Greenham is now with the ECHL’s Bakersfield (Calif.) Condors and Thompson, Cahill and Keeney are each looking to pick up where Greenham left off as a Nanook.
Cahill, 5-foot-11 and 167 pounds, only played one period last season for the Nanooks, stopping both of the two shots he faced during the third period of a 3-1 loss to Bowling Green State (Ohio) in a CCHA game at the Carlson Center last Jan. 20.
He relishes the opportunity to compete for the starting role rather than just bide his time as a backup.
“You learn a lot from a guy like Greenham, but it’s nice to get an opportunity like that (starting), and we’ll see which way it goes,” Cahill said.
Thompson is the only one among the candidates with significant playing experience. The 6-2, 192-pounder started three games, all last season, and posted a 1-2-0 record with a 2.92 GAA and .886 SPCT. For his career, his record is the same but he’s appeared in five games and has a 3.13 career GAA and .875 SPCT.
Thompson has a determined approach because this is his last season in a Nanooks uniform.
“There’s definitely a level of pressure knowing that this is your senior year. ... This is really an important year, I don’t have another year to fall back on,” Thompson said.
“At the same time, you hear about the people who get the sophomore complacency,” Thompson said. “I don’t have an opportunity to do that. So I think this is going to be great for my motivation because every single day is the biggest day of my life and I don’t have anything I can look back on, and I don’t want to have any regrets.
“From that standpoint, it’s an advantage to have them (Cahill and Keeney) put pressure on you.”
The candidates respect each other despite their battle to be the starting goaltender when the pucks drops at 5:07 p.m. on Oct. 12 against Air Force in Sullivan Arena in Anchorage.
“We have a great respect for each other,” the 6-1, 187-pound Keeney said.”We’re all friends off the ice, even though on the ice we’re all competing and we’re all trying to fight for the same spot.”
Contact staff writer Danny Martin at 459-7586.