Alaska Life

In the 1980s, some hoped the new Sullivan Arena would draw the NHL to Anchorage. It didn’t work out that way.

Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

The National Hockey League’s newest team, the Seattle Kraken, will play their first regular-season game on Oct. 12. The Kraken’s significant marketing efforts in Alaska, including donations toward reinstating men’s hockey at the University of Alaska Anchorage, have successfully created a buzz and awareness throughout the state. And with that burgeoning newborn support, there is the hope, realistic or not, that the Kraken could play an exhibition game in Anchorage. If it happens, it would not be the first time NHL teams have played here. However, if the Kraken did travel north, hopefully their visit would be less doomed than their predecessors.

Anchorage’s first flirtation with the NHL came in 1983. On Sept. 27 and 28, 1983, the Vancouver Canucks and Winnipeg Jets played two preseason games at Sullivan Arena. It was a time when hope about professional sports in Anchorage flared wildly. The arena had just opened that year, and many thought it would enable the town’s transition into a suitably vibrant hockey hotbed. A month before the Canucks and Jets arrived, the U.S. Olympic team played two sellout games against the Soviet Wings, a Russian touring team.

The Canucks organization, in particular, looked forward to their Alaska introduction. “We’d love to build interest in Alaska,” said Canucks general manager Harry Neale. “If we go up and have a couple of good games, people might get behind us.”

The Canucks were the closest team to Alaska. However, the Jets likely made more local fans when they drafted two former Anchorage standouts that summer. Neither Harry Armstrong, formerly of West High, nor Kory Wright, formerly of East High, made it to the NHL, though Wright returned to play several seasons with the Anchorage Aces in the 1990s.

The Canucks were coming off a disappointing season but were in the Stanley Cup finals in 1982. Notable players on the team included All-Star goalie Richard Brodeur and future Hall of Famer Cam Neely.

The Jets that played in Anchorage are not the franchise with the name today. In 1996, those Jets relocated and became the Phoenix Coyotes, now the Arizona Coyotes. Notable players on the team in 1983 included Morris Lukowich and future Hall of Famer Dale Hawerchuk.

In those days, NHL preseason games typically drew a minimum of 4,000 to 5,000 paid attendees. Expectations were likely higher in Anchorage. But when the first game started, there were only 2,448 fans in an arena that holds more than 6,000 in its hockey configuration. It was a debacle. Hawerchuk had a hat trick, yet everyone’s attention was on the broad swaths of empty seats. More locals had shown up for a playoff game between Dimond and Bartlett High schools earlier that year. “It doesn’t look good,” said Jets general manager John Ferguson before the game.

[History: The NBA once brought legends like Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Anchorage. Here’s why it’s unlikely to happen again.]

The Jets completed the sweep the next night in front of even fewer fans, 2,319 attendees. The highlight of the evening was not any moment from the game but two local fans, Hillary Weireter and Mark Przybylski, who engaged in a between-period shootout for tickets to Hawaii. Both contestants hit their first 60-foot shot through a narrow hole before missing their next three attempts. Rather than force them to continue, the sponsors awarded each of them two tickets.

As for the disappointing attendance, some locals blamed the $20 ticket price, about $54 in 2021 dollars. Ben Hilberg of Alpine-Burtco Leisure Services, which managed the arena, noted that each team was paid “right around $25,000″ per game, about $68,000 after adjusting for inflation. He noted, “We can’t do this kind of thing again next year. No promoter would touch (a pro hockey game) at this point. Not after this.”

Shortly before the first game, Neale said, “It’s tough getting people to turn out for something they’ve never seen before. If we give them a good game, there’ll be more people... next year.” His optimism was commendable, but the Canucks did not return the following year. In fact, it took 18 years for the NHL to revisit Anchorage, a trip marred by a very different context.

Meanwhile, there was another scheme in play to bring the NHL to Anchorage on a more regular basis. The Pittsburgh Penguins were shopping around for a new training camp base after tiring of their longtime Johnstown, Pennsylvania, preseason home. Penguins general manager Ed Johnston said, “We were looking to switch our training camp from Johnstown, and we heard a lot of nice things about the facility (Sullivan Arena) up there, so we started looking into it.”

The team was at a low point in its history. They finished with the NHL’s worst record for the 1982-1983 season and struggled financially. The move to Anchorage meant better potential exhibition opponents, including the Edmonton Oilers in the early days of their Wayne Gretzky-led dynasty. Team officials demanded a $25,000 guarantee for each Anchorage game, the same as that given the Canucks and Jets for their shorter stints in town.

The Sullivan Arena sellouts for the Soviet Wings games tempted Penguins leadership, but they delayed signing any deal until after the Jets-Canucks exhibitions. The attendance disaster for those games essentially ended negotiations. Thus, Anchorage hockey fans missed out on seeing 1984 first overall draft pick and future Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux at the onset of his illustrious career.

In 2001, the St. Louis Blues and San Jose Sharks agreed to play a two-game series at Sullivan Arena on Sept. 15 and 16. The Blues arrived the weekend prior; the Sharks were not expected to arrive until the 14th. The Blues’s first local appearance was as a free, open-to-the-public practice, scheduled for the morning of Sept. 11.

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the Blues quickly canceled the practice. The NHL also canceled the upcoming preseason games. Nationwide travel restrictions kept the Blues in Anchorage and the Sharks in the Lower 48.

The Blues went back to work the next day with a public scrimmage. For many staff, players and fans, it was a welcome return to normalcy. St. Louis general manager Larry Pleau said, “We all have prayers for the victims and victims’ families. But everyone has to go on and show these people they can’t hurt us.” Blues star Keith Tkachuk told the Daily News, “I don’t think it’ll ever be normal again. It definitely changed our lives. You want to forget about it, but you can’t.”

Blues winger Dallas Drake said, “You couldn’t get away from (the news). It’s good to get away from it, to just get away and play.” A local fan in attendance noted, “It’s definitely something good to come here and turn our focus to something else for a couple of hours.”

Though the weekend bouts with Sharks were canceled, the Blues played an intrasquad scrimmage at the Sullivan on Saturday the 15th. Organizer Jim Sonnier praised the Blues organization for their generosity and flexibility that week. “For Larry Pleau to make a decision to stay and play an intrasquad game — unbelievable,” said Sonnier. “He could have taken his team, called in a charter (flight) and gone home.

The possibility of a Kraken exhibition aside, the opportunities for high-level professional sports in Alaska have largely passed. Long-distance fandoms are easier than ever, especially in a state riddled with transplants and given the various streaming options.

As Daily News sportswriter Ron Somers wrote in 1983, “If any of us were truly addicted to live pro sports, we probably wouldn’t be living in Alaska.” He added, “I came home from an Oriole game one night and snapped at my wife just because Dennis Martinez pitched a two-hitter and lost. That’s when I knew it was time to escape to Alaska. No, maybe we don’t need pro sports here.”

Key sources:

“Alaska Sports Digest.” Anchorage Daily News, September 14, 2001, C2.

Booth, Tim. “Kraken Released: Seattle’s New NHL Team Opens the Preseason with a Win—and the Possibility of Games as Far Afield as Alaska.” Anchorage Daily News, September 27, 2021, adn.com/sports/national-sports/2021/09/27/kraken-released-seattles-new-nhl-team-opens-the-preseason-with-a-win-and-the-possibility-of-games-as-far-afield-as-alaska/.

Fidelman, Neil. “Alaska’s Unmade ‘Hockey Hotbed’ Succeeds in Sleeping This One Off.” Anchorage Times, September 28, 1983, E1, E10.

Fidelman, Neil. “Canucks Bring Fancy Duds.” Anchorage Times, September 25, 1983, C1, C11.

Fidelman, Neil. “Jets Win in OT; Hotshots Shine.” Anchorage Times, September 29, 1983, E1, E8.

Fidelman, Neil. “NHL’s Jets to Visit Alaska ‘Family.’” Anchorage Times, September 26, 1983, B1.

Fidelman, Neil. “NHL Penguins Eye Anchorage.” Anchorage Times, September 27, 1983, D1, D5.

Somers, Ron. “Yearning for Alaska Pro Teams Best Left at Hankering Stage.” Anchorage Daily News, September 9, 1983, C-1.

Woody, Doyle. “A Short Diversion from Reality.” Anchorage Daily News, September 13, 2001, C1, C2.


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