by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
So, what's in Alaska, anyway?
Well, for starters, Alaska features the tallest mountain in North America, over three million lakes, a capital city (Juneau) accessible only by boat or plane, America's largest national park, and glaciers larger than the state of Rhode Island.
Oh, and perhaps not surprisingly, there's plenty of hockey as well — especially in Alaska's two largest cities, Anchorage and Fairbanks, both of which boast a Division I college hockey program.
So, while Alaska may represent a great white unknown to many college hockey fans in the contiguous United States, ice hockey plays an integral role in the culture of the state dubbed "The Land of the Midnight Sun."
"I think everybody's got the perception that it's just igloos [up here]," said Alaska-Anchorage coach Dave Shyiak. "Anchorage itself - there are 300,000 people here. It's got all the amenities of any other large metropolis in the lower 48. It's a beautiful city, right by the mountains and the ocean, and it's a big time hockey town."
"We don't have pro football, we don't have pro baseball, and we don't have pro basketball," added University of Alaska head coach Tavis MacMillan. "Hockey is a winter sport — an ice and snow sport. It's our game. You don't need artificial snow and icemakers to do it. [Here], you can play wherever you want, whenever you want. People up here take a lot of pride in that."
And fans in Anchorage and Fairbanks take a lot of pride in their respective college hockey teams as well. This past weekend, the passionate rivals — the Alaska (formerly Alaska-Fairbanks) Nanooks of the CCHA and the Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves of the WCHA — hit the ice in Fairbanks for the first two of an annual four-game series for the esteemed Governor's Cup.
In fact, the name change in itself sparked passions, with Alaska-Anchorage taking umbrage that Fairbanks anointed itself simply "Alaska," a distinction — as in Wisconsin and Minnesota — reserved for the clear cut signature campus in a state. If the Seawolves needed any extra motivation, they were willing to use this as a rallying cry.
Shyiak's Seawolves, who lost three of four to the Nanooks last season, appeared to have the quicker step all weekend, taking the first game in a 6-5 overtime thriller before settling for a 1-1 tie on Saturday night.
In Friday's back-and-forth contest, the Nanooks were on the verge of victory before Anchorage's Jay Beagle tied the score at 5-5 with only 15 seconds remaining in the third period. Senior Justin Bourne then showed some offensive supremacy of his own, netting the game-winner with 1:51 left in overtime, to go along with his three assists in regulation.
It was the first win for Anchorage in Fairbanks since October 10, 2003, and the upstart Seawolves are suddenly 2-0-2.
But while you wouldn't be able to tell with the way they played over the weekend, the Seawolves program has in fact struggled mightily in recent years, with 12 consecutive losing seasons. Last year, Anchorage managed only a 6-27-3 record and won just one of its last 20 games of the season.
It was coach Shyiak's first year at the helm, and he hasn't forgotten.
"Last year was a frustrating season for everybody involved," said Shyiak, who fired the previous assistant coaches over the summer. "We went through a long transition stage, and this year, it's been a little bit easier as far as how the whole operation works. This year, we have a lot more team cohesion, and a better team commitment and attitude. Everybody seems to be on the same page, and I don't think we had that last year."
While the Seawolves have struggled, the Alaska Nanooks have enjoyed some noteworthy success, steadily increasing their win total each of the last four years and reaching 18 wins last season.
MacMillan, who played for Fairbanks and graduated in 1994, reflected on the evolution of his alma mater's program.
"The biggest thing was the lack of an association with a conference, as an independent, when I played," recalled MacMillan. "Now, we're playing in one of the premier leagues in college hockey in the CCHA. Once we reached that level, things started to change. That was a big step.
"Then there was the evolution of getting to the CCHA championships in Detroit, and then winning playoff games," continued MacMillan. "Now, the next step for our program is winning a CCHA championship and going to the NCAA tournament. We feel like that's well within the realm of reality."
And who can blame them for believing? Last year, the Nanooks scored three momentous road upsets during the regular season — a further indication of how far the program has come in the past decade.
Said a proud MacMillan, "We beat three number ones last year. We went into Minnesota and beat Minnesota, we went into Michigan and beat Michigan, we went into Miami and beat Miami. So our kids fully understand that they can beat anybody, but they also understand that, if they're not prepared, they can lose to anybody."
Now, after failing to earn a victory over the weekend, the 2-1-1 Nanooks know they'll need the same type of road success the next time they face their archrivals in Anchorage - in a two game set on Dec. 29-30 that will determine the winner of this year's Governor's Cup.
And while they might not always get the attention of much of the college hockey world, the games mean a lot in Alaska and in the two hockey-crazed cities involved.
"It's a very heated rivalry," said Shyiak. "You can compare it to BU vs. BC, Michigan vs. Michigan State, and Minnesota vs. Wisconsin."
Added MacMillan, "In this series, in this Governor's Cup, there are obviously some heightened expectations. But not necessarily from us. We have the same expectations all the time. But the energy up here, there's such a passion for this series — much like, growing up in Alberta, Calgary and Edmonton have their [NHL] rivalry. When it's your rival, it's bigger than just the game. It involves two very passionate cities that take a lot of pride in these games."
So, while the state of Alaska may be a mystery to many, the fans in Anchorage and Fairbanks know that this rivalry is no mystery at all.