Winters are seldom easy in the heart of subarctic Alaska, where temperatures above double digits below zero and sunlight are scarce. But the winter of 2020-21 has been extremely difficult, especially for sports fans in Fairbanks, a town of about 30,000 people in the heart of the Last Frontier.
Their local North American Hockey League team, the Fairbanks Ice Dogs, spent much of the winter in Marshall, Minnesota, where they were safe from the travel and quarantine headaches caused. by the pandemic. And the local college team, the University of Alaska Nanooks, was among a handful of programs that took a hiatus.
On Saturday in Minneapolis, after more than 500 days without an actual game, the Nanooks are back, visiting the Minnesota Gophers as the season opens for both teams.
The Gophers open the 2021-22 season fourth nationally and have been selected to win the Big Ten title. In a normal pre-match week, they spend time spotting their opponent, watching videos of recent matches. In the case of the Nanooks, this is not possible.
âNothing. We don’t know anything,â said Gophers coach Bob Motzko, when asked about their weekend nemesis. âWe’ll have a movie on Saturday after we play the game, but we don’t have one now, and there is nothing we can do. ”
Motzko added that at the start of a season that spans eight months between the start of training and the delivery of the NCAA title trophy, the Gophers will focus on their own game.
âAt the start of the year, everything revolves around us,â he said. âAll we’re putting in now is our systems and how we’re going to play. We haven’t even made face-offs yet. We’re going to bring things in.
For the Nanooks, coach Erik Largen admitted some of the older and better players on the program were transferred last season, unwilling to take a year off. What remains is a mix of young players who have been training and practicing for a full year, eager to play. Although real college hockey is a new experience for many on the Alaska roster. The Nanooks remain a mystery, even to their own coach.
âWe have a bit of a mix, but with that, there isn’t a lot of college hockey experience,â said Largen, who has been the program’s head coach since 2018. âWe have a second squad. a year that has never played a game, our first year group. hasn’t played any matches, and we have redshirt juniors who haven’t played any matches. So it’s a unique makeup, and something I’ve never experienced before. This is how the last few years have unfolded.
Just having a team on the ice is a big step after the upheaval of the past 20 months. Alaska has played in the WCHA before but has not been invited to join the new CCHA, which is entering its first season. Two of the former WCHA teammates, Alaska Anchorage and Alabama Huntsville, will not play this season.
The Nanooks persevered as Indians and put together a decent schedule, with teams like Clarkson, St. Thomas, Omaha and RPI all making the long trip to Fairbanks for games. The Ice Dogs are also back in town.
âFairbanks is a great hockey community. On Fridays and Saturdays, you’re at (Big Dipper Arena) watching the Dogs play or you’re at the Carlson (Center) watching the âNooks play,â Largen said. “It’s like that in town, and we haven’t had this all last yearâ¦ This year we had our first intrasquad at the Carlson Center and it was good to be back there, to playing with the fans in the stands. ”
Gophers junior forward Jonny Sorenson was named LNAH MVP while playing for the Ice Dogs in 2018-19, and has said the passion for hockey in small town Alaska is second to none.
âThey all have shirts and thick beards and they’ll literally wait 40 minutes after the game for the players to say hello,â said Sorenson, who returned to Fairbanks to visit friends over the summer. âWe know it’s a tough team. This is a must see in Fairbanks. They play hard and they play fast.
Saturday’s season opener at 3M Arena in Mariucci will meet at 2:30 pm Sunday’s rematch will begin at 4:00 pm.