Winters are rarely easy in the heart of sub-Arctic Alaska, where temperatures are hotter than the double digits below zero, and sunshine is scarce. But the winter of 2020-21 was extremely difficult, especially for sports fans in Fairbanks, a city of about 30,000 in the middle of the Last Frontier.
His local North American Hockey League team, the Fairbanks Ice Dogs, spent most of the winter in Marshall, Minn., where they were free from travel and quarantine headaches due to the pandemic. And the local college team, the University of Alaska Nanooks, was among a handful of programs that closed out the season.
On Saturday in Minneapolis, the Nanooks are back after more than 500 days without an actual game, visiting the Minnesota Gophers in the season opener for both teams.
The Gophers began the 2021–22 season in fourth place nationally and went on to win the Big Ten title. In a typical pregame week, they spend time searching for their opponent, watching videos from recent games. This is not possible in the case of Nanuk.
“Nothing. We know nothing,” Gophers coach Bob Motzko said when asked about his weekend foe. “We’ll get some movie on Saturday after we play the game, but we don’t have any right now, And there’s nothing we can do.”
Motzko said that at the start of the eight-month-long season from the start of practice to the lifting of the NCAA title trophy, the Gophers will focus on their game.
“At the beginning of the year, it’s all about us,” he said. “What we are putting in now is our system and how we are going to play. We haven’t even done faceoff yet. We’re going to get things done. ”
As for the Nanooks, coach Eric Largen acknowledged that some of the older players and better players on the program were transferred last season, not wanting to take a year off. What remains is a mix of young players who have been practicing and training for a full year, itching to play. Although real college hockey will be a new experience for many people on the Alaska roster. Nanook remains a mystery even to his own coach.
“We have a bit of a mix, but don’t have a lot of college hockey experience with it,” said Largen, who has been the program’s head coach since 2018. Haven’t played games, and we have redshirt juniors who haven’t played games. So this is a unique makeup, and something that I have never experienced before. The last few years have gone like this.”
Just having a team on the ice is a huge step after the turmoil of the past 20 months. Alaska formerly played in the WCHA but was not invited to join the new CCHA, which is beginning its first season. Two former WCHA teammates, Alaska Anchorage and Alabama Huntsville, will not play this season.
Nanooks has persevered as an independent and has built a good schedule with teams such as Clarkson, St. Thomas, Omaha and RPI all making the long commute to Fairbanks for games. The Ice Dogs are also back in town.
“Fairbanks is a big hockey community. Friday and Saturday, you’re watching the dogs play at[Big Dipper Arena]or you’re watching ‘Kooks play’ at Carlson (centre),” Largen said. And we didn’t have that last year… We had our first intrasquad at Carlsen Center this year and it’s nice to be back there playing with the fans in the stands.”
Gophers junior forward Johnny Sorenson was named MVP in the NHL while playing for the Ice Dogs in 2018-19, and said the passion for hockey in small-town Alaska is incomparable.
“They all have jerseys and thick beards and they will literally wait 40 minutes after the game for the players,” said Sorenson, who went back to Fairbanks to visit friends over the summer. “We know they’re a tough team. It’s a staple of Fairbanks. They work hard, and they play fast.”
Saturday’s season opener will take place at 2:30 p.m. at the 3M Arena in Mariuchi, with Sunday’s rematch starting at 4 p.m.