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Playing abroad: Hockey takes Alaskans to distant lands

  • Author: Doyle Woody
  • Updated: August 10, 2017
  • Published August 10, 2017

Tanner Sorenson, a hockey player from Anchorage, was sleeping in a dorm room at his old Minnesota prep school – he was back on campus working at a hockey camp – when his cellphone rang late one night last month. He glanced at the screen and saw a strange, long number and a word – Russia – that intrigued him.

"Guess I'll take this one,'' Sorenson thought to himself.

On the other end was Sergei Nemchinov, the former NHLer, who introduced himself as general manager of Torpedo, a team based in Kazakhstan, once part of the Soviet Union. Torpedo competes in the Supreme Hockey League, which is one step below the Kontinental Hockey League, arguably the second-best circuit in the world to the NHL.

Nemchinov offered Sorenson a job for the upcoming season, and a salary that appealed. That was a Tuesday night. Sorenson had until Friday to decide. He already had a deal to return to the ECHL's Kalamazoo Wings for a third season – and he really likes that Michigan city and the franchise – but decided to seize opportunity, and adventure, abroad.

"It's a big, big change in life,'' Sorenson said. "But I'm 24, I'm single, I have nothing holding me back.''

So it goes each hockey offseason for a handful or two of Alaskans – they head overseas to continue their pro careers.

Former Alaska Aces Tim Wallace and Dax Lauwers of Anchorage are headed to the Great Britain-based Elite Ice Hockey League after the ECHL Aces folded at the end of last season. Eric Walsky of Anchorage has long played in Switzerland. Evan Trupp of Anchorage, a former Ace, played in Germany last season and is headed back there.

For former Aces captain William Wrenn of Anchorage, a sixth-year pro defenseman, the next stop, and his first abroad, is Latvia – he's headed to Dinamo Riga of the KHL.

Like Sorenson, Wrenn, 26, already had a deal in place when Dinamo Riga came calling. After spending last season with the Toronto Marlies in the American Hockey League, he had signed with Bolzano in the Austrian league earlier this offseason.

Anchorage’s William Wrenn, the former Alaska Aces captain seen here pursuing Colorado Eagles center Trent Daavettila in 2012, is headed to Latvia to play hockey in the highly regarded Kontinental Hockey League. (ERIK HILL / ADN 2012)

Wrenn didn't know anything about Latvia – "Zero – I didn't even know where it was until I looked it up,'' he said – but he figured an opportunity in the KHL was too good to pass up.

"Once I got a formal offer, I had to buy out the Bolzano contract,'' Wrenn said. "You want to respect that you signed a contract, but in my opinion, the KHL is the best league (in Europe). It was a no-brainer.

"But you also signed a contract, and I think both parties were satisfied (with the buy-out). It's a fluky, wild thing. The KHL is a hard place to break into, so that was good. I got a break.''

Wrenn flew out of Anchorage earlier this week on a direct flight to Frankfurt, Germany, to join Dinamo Riga at a preseason tournament in Kassel, Germany.

Wrenn has played more games in the AHL (134) than the ECHL (113). Still, gaining a completely secure foothold in the AHL has proved difficult. He spent much of last season on a pro tryout agreement rather than a standard AHL contract.

"Personally, I was kind of tired of feeling I was doing my job, but not getting the reward,'' Wrenn said. "I figured, 'What the heck, change it up.'

"(The KHL) is definitely a league where, if you do well, it can open some doors.''

Wrenn also considered his personal life in deciding to play abroad. He recently became engaged to his longtime girlfriend, Carley Mattingley, an Anchorage nurse, and said her patience and support has been remarkable during a pro career that has taken him to Texas, Idaho, Massachusetts, New York and Toronto. The couple plan for Mattingley to visit Wrenn during the upcoming season, he said.

"She's the best,'' Wrenn said. "She's put up with a ton of long distance.''

Meanwhile, Sorenson is back in Anchorage spending time with family and friends, and training, before he jets out of town soon. He is accustomed to being away from home. Sorenson was 13 when he first left home to play at Shattuck-St. Mary's, an elite program in Faribault, Minnesota. That was followed by four seasons at Michigan State, a brief stint with the Aces, and two seasons with Kalamazoo.

The way Sorenson figures it, his upcoming season abroad could furnish a lifetime of stories. If it doesn't work out, he can always return to Kalamazoo, where he was a 20-goal scorer last season. The Wings still own his ECHL rights.

For now, though, he's ready for an adventure.

"I'm a go-with-the-flow, what happens-happens type of guy,'' he said.

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