The weekend in Alaska continues with a Saturday flight from Anchorage back to Fairbanks, and the exchange over plane’s intercom really covered it all.
Pilot: “Current conditions in Fairbanks, sunshine, 9 degrees…”
Pilot: “…below zero.”
After the plane landed, I grabbed lunch with Bruce Cech. The voice of Alaska-Fairbanks hockey has done play-by-play for the program since the eighties, and is known for his chipper demeanor on-the-air. He’s exactly the same off-air as on, wearing a permanent smile while covering topics from radio, to hockey, to getting accustomed to the short days of winter.
Afterward, he departed for the arena while I drove around for a bit, taking in more of the experience of this ice-and-snow-glazed wonderland. It’s among the most beautiful things you’ll ever see, and a bit surreal to be in Alaska in the winter.
While many buildings in Fairbanks have plug-ins for vehicle block heaters, Carlson Center is not one of them. The arena’s capacity checks in just shy of 4,600 for hockey, which is plenty large for the crowds Alaska-Fairbanks draws these days. Even with the NAHL’s Fairbanks Ice Dogs in action on this particular night, Carlson Center drew a respectable crowd that filled roughly half of the venue.
The concourses are fairly spartan, with exposed ductwork and polished concrete floors. Decoration consists primarily of various jerseys representing the many semi-pro and minor league teams that have called the city home over the years.
Like most other arenas in the league, the rafters here include banners for fellow WCHA members, as well as commemorating the various achievements of the Nanooks hockey program over the years. Also similar to many other arenas, there’s an exposed concourse running behind one of the goals, and Carlson Center’s is decorated with a series of massive fabric panels that, I’m told, are an interpretation of the northern lights. Also off this concourse is a room filled with memorabilia dating to the earliest days of Nanooks hockey.
Moreso at Carlson Center than any other venue, alcohol is tightly controlled. Seating in the arena is divided into a wet side and a dry side, and drinks absolutely cannot be taken across the line that divides them. It’s a result of Alaska having some of the toughest liquor laws in the nation, fueled by the state’s extremely high rates of alcoholism and suicide. I’m sure the long, dark winters play a significant role.
The Nanooks take the ice in one of the most grandiose displays in the league, skating out of the tunnel from between the paws of a gigantic, snarling inflatable polar bear. It whips the fans into a frenzy, and the entire building is engaged leading into the opening faceoff.
Just 15 seconds into the game Minnesota State was assessed a 5-minute major & game misconduct for contact to the head—leftover from the Friday night festivities, no doubt—and the Nanooks capitalized less than 3 minutes later by opening the scoring.
The crowd settled down just in time for the goal announcement from Britton Anderson, one of two public address announcers at Carlson Center, who makes his announcements into a vintage chrome microphone while clad in a suit. He’s highly visible at ice level, and brings a touch of boxing ring announcer showmanship to the festivities.
Unfortunately for the home crowd, Minnesota State was not impressed and proceeded to hang three goals on the Nanooks before the first period drew to a merciful close. Bruce Cech invited me to join him on-air during the first intermission, and while I was in the broadcast booth with him, the public address announcer told the arena of my quest and my presence there. It was an extraordinary gesture that Bruce had arranged. Like I said, he’s the same great guy off-air that he is when the mic is on.
Considering Minnesota State had been upset 5-0 the night prior, the Mavericks were not interested in letting up after the first twenty minutes. They tacked on two more goals before the second period came to a close. By this point the Nanooks are down 5-1 and it appeared a lot of the families with kids decided to call it a night.
What comes next is fairly predictable. The home team is getting blown out. They’re pissed. Frustrated. Chippy. Minnesota State was in that boat the night prior and are more than happy to dish it right back. As a result, the third period was a whistle-fest with a total of 30 minutes of penalties for 20 minutes of action. Nobody scored. It was about getting off the ice and putting the night in the books.
The ones who’d stayed until the end filed out into the -15 night. I was just hoping my car would start when I got back to it, and was pleased when it fired right up. I hated to leave Alaska after such a short time, but it was time to head for the airport and a much-needed thaw back in the mainland.
Eight down, two to go.
Cover photo credit Will Sterrett.