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Daily Dish: The Dawn of Alaska Junior Hockey Junior Hockey News

Published: Monday, 20 Jan 2020  
By: Stephen Heisler, JuniorHockey.com


"Rob, we really need to put a team into Fairbanks," I said to (Fairbanks GM) Rob Proffitt, at Anchorage's Ben Boeke Arena, back in the spring of 1997.

 

Jack Knue, Dave Childers, and I had started the Anchorage Arctic Ice two years before. The first season (95-96) ended with a National Championship and the second (96-97) was our first year in the Western States Hockey League. That second season was a challenge. Playing all of our home games at Sullivan Arena, we worked hard to make a name for ourselves and overcome the incredible travel budget needed to take part in the league. 

 

Don Thorne, the WSHL Commissioner at the time, believed in Alaska hockey, and allowed us to build a group that could form a new Alaska division for the 1997-98 season. Getting Anchorage to go along with the plan was initially difficult, but the pieces eventually fell into place.

 

That fateful spring, we were able to form the Mat-Su Sinbad Sailors (coached by Eric Ballard), my Peninsula Hellfighters, along with Rob Proffitt, Jack Tragis, and the Fairbanks Artic Lions Club's Fairbanks Ice Dogs. 

 

We had also done a ton of work to help form the Yukon Claimjumpers, a team over in Whitehorse (Yukon Territory). Eventually the Claimjumpers joined the group as well.

 

A lot of people were not pleased with the formation of the Alaska Division. Guys like longtime Anchorage high school coach Dennis Sorenson downplayed the chances of our success to the Anchorage Daily News in a 1997 article.

 

That first year was a challenge, and a tough dose of reality to swallow. Somehow, every scheduled game was played despite my own team being drastically underfunded. Guys like Andrew Carmichael, then the manager at the Central Peninsula Sports Center, and Tragis, made sure that every game was played.

 

My son, Christian, was born at the end of that season, with a facial deformity that required specialized treatment. We eventually moved to Florida, to be closer to Shiner's Hospital, where he has been treated for his entire life. Today my son is vibrant young adult and grew up faster than I ever wanted him to. 

 

I miss Alaska, and do a lot of second-guessing in regards to the decisions made during that 1997-98 season. I can't help but believe that we would still be on the Peninsula if Eric Ballard had been offered the Hellfighters' coaching job instead of Vince Redford. That's one of the biggest mistakes of my career. The folks in Soldotna believed in what we were doing and I am sad to have to say that they were let down.


Ballard, Tragis and I all laughed about that season at last weekend's USA Hockey Winter Meetings here in Orlando. Time has been good to all three of us and we have become even better friends as a result of the experience. 

 

Today the Peninsula has the North American Hockey League's Kenai River Brown Bears team, and the Fairbanks Ice Dogs have been going since that fateful 1997-98 season.

 

Great job Fairbanks, you guys have carried the torch for Alaska junior hockey, and deserve your position as one of the continent's best junior hockey organizations. I will always be an Ice Dogs' fan and look forward to getting back to Fairbanks soon. Alaska junior hockey will always be a big part of who I am, and something I will always try to keep going.


Author: Stephen Heisler from JuniorHockey.com
Stephen Heisler has spent a lifetime in the game of hockey. Stephen is also working with individual teams, coaches, and players as a director with Victorious Hockey Company. Stephen, his wife Deysi, and four children reside in Orlando, Florida.


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