Foreward: This story requires some background on itineraries. Since this trip involved two schools in one weekend, it was most economical to fly from Kansas City to Fairbanks, then catch a cheap flight down to Anchorage for the Friday night Seawolves/Chargers game. Saturday involved a return trip to Fairbanks for Nanooks/Mavericks, followed by my return to Kansas City on the red-eye. Got it? Good.
Of all the questions I’ve received since this whole thing started, the most common question is 1) “Even the Alaska schools?” Since the answer is “yes,” it’s usually followed by question 2) “Are you insane?”
While I’d always answered “No” with a chuckle, I had to re-evaluate that when I set foot outside into -17 weather in Fairbanks. I’d experienced this type of cold before, but not for some time. Immediately I began coughing. My face turned numb. I marched through the snow to the rental car pickup, found my car, and unplugged it from the block heater. Getting in, I pushed the ignition button. Nothing. I pushed the brake down and hit the button. Nothing. I pushed the brake down, then released it, then hit the button. Nope.
A return trip to the rental car counter later, I’m in the car, pressing the gas, THEN holding the brake down, and hitting start. My skateboard-on-wheels roars (or meows) to life and I’m on my way. Did I mention it’s 1:15am Thursday night/Friday morning now?
One of the many people I was fortunate enough to meet through this experience is Britton Anderson, public address announcer for Nanooks hockey at Carlson Center. Being the good guy that he is, he met me for a welcome beer at 1:30am. I learned that Alaskan White is a tasty brew while discussing UAF hockey, the rivalry between the two schools, the Alaskan economy, and any number of other things. Good beer, good chat.
Friday began by going directly to Carlson Center for the Face-Off Club’s pregame luncheon. Every Friday before a home series they gather for lunch and a Q&A with both coaches as well as, typically, one of the student athletes. Minnesota State’s Mike Hastings spoke candidly, followed by UAF’s Lance West, and sophomore Kylar Hope.
Everywhere you turn in Fairbanks you get an eyeful of some of the best winter views of your life. It’s like walking around in a Christmas card. I snapped a couple photos and headed for Anchorage, where the real action would be found on Friday night.
I made it to Sullivan Arena about 45 minutes before faceoff. Though it’s the target of criticism, I found it to be a comfortable place for a hockey game. The lower level seats are padded, there are good sight lines – it’s not a dump. The only thing that really raised my eyebrow is the fact that all of the Alaska Aces signage, banners, retired numbers, etc. are all still there even though the ECHL franchise folded after last season.
Concourses are easy to navigate due to a mix of good design and light attendance. It’s no secret that Alaska-Anchorage has struggled on the ice, posting just one winning season since joining the WCHA in 1993. That, in turn, has rendered Sullivan Arena needlessly large.
By faceoff, roughly 1/3 of the arena’s seats were filled. UAH opened the scoring at 3:54, right around the time my phone buzzed.
“CONGRATULATIONS! You’ve been chosen for tonight’s Alaska Airlines Puck Shoot! Please report to the public address booth,” read the text.
You’ve got to be kidding me.
I was told when and where to meet up with the organizers, and watched an up-and-down period come to an end with the Chargers up 1-0. At this point I was walked onto the ice and given three shots to get a puck through three different slots on a board in front of the goal. I’m the rare hockey fantatic who never played the game. I can’t skate. I’d never set foot on an ice sheet until that moment. And let me tell you, it showed.
Shot one – wide left. Missed the goal entirely.
Shot two – wide right. Same problem.
Shot three – even wider left. Woof.
Still, it was a fun experience on the ice and I had a nice chat with the other two shooters, both of whom had similarly failed in their mission.
The gameday entertainment crew does a pretty solid job of getting the crowd involved, considering just how many seats are unfilled. They’re able to engage the fans in the arena, who are clearly the most loyal in the Alaska-Anchorage base. When the hockey team is struggling, people don’t go to a game to hang out, or for something to do on a date. They go because they want to watch hockey. As a result, the crowd is watching closely and can be sucked into the game almost as easily as an opposing goal takes them out of it. As the score sat at 2-0 Alabama-Huntsville early in the second, that crowd was observing what was unfolding with the kind of reverence reserved for funeral visitations. They’d seen this before, and weren’t into it.
I literally jumped in my seat as the goal horn sounded, and the crowd leapt to its feet thanks to a goal to cut the deficit in half. Not only were the Seawolves back in it, but the fans were too.
I got to meet longtime Seawolves play-by-play voice Kurt Haider during the second intermission. He called his 700th UAA game that weekend, and we have a mutual tie in Kansas. He’s a genuinely good guy, and it was discouraging to see the Aces fold just two years after he’d gotten their play-by-play gig – his dream job. Kurt is among the best broadcasters in hockey, and many WCHA.tv users have been treated to his talent when watching those nightcaps from Anchorage.
Midway through the third period Alaska-Anchorage scored again, tying the game at 2 and eliciting the strongest response yet from the crowd on hand. They were in this game now, and “LET’S GO SEA-WOLVES” chants that had fizzled earlier in the night were now going strong. It was a well-played 7 minutes or so of hockey, until Alabama-Huntsville slid a fortunately-placed rebound past goalie Olivier Mantha at 17:05. Then, we were back in the funeral home. All the momentum, crowd engagement, all of it – gone. A late push failed to give Anchorage the tie, and UAH scored an empty-netter to finish it at 19:59.
Fans seemed to be in good spirits leaving, despite the loss. After all, these are the die-hards. They’re behind the program no matter what, but they’ve become accustomed to outcomes such as these. Just as the axiom is true that “good teams find ways to win,” the inverse is also correct – bad teams find ways to lose. In many ways, it seemed as though that’s what happened to the Seawolves down the stretch. They couldn’t close the door, just like in countless other games this season and years prior.
I filed out into the Alaskan night, looking forward to a Moose’s Tooth pizza and a full night’s sleep before flying back to Fairbanks to round off the weekend.
Seven down, three to go.