GLENNALLEN – Hockey was front-page news last week in Glennallen, where the weekly Copper River Record was filled with stories and photos about the sport.
The newspaper previewed the Copper River Hockey Association’s Bold ’N Cold tournament (motto: “The way hockey should be,” which is code for “Outdoors in subzero temperatures”). Youth teams from places like Healy and Tok came for games on the town’s two outdoor rinks.
It was a big weekend for the high school team too -- Friday was Senior Night, and Saturday was the final game of the regular season. The team swept the two-game series with the visiting Monroe Rams to secure second place in the Aurora Conference heading into this week’s Division II state high school tournament in Fairbanks.
In what was perhaps the biggest news of all, at least for the high school players, the team practiced twice.
That’s a big deal. The team is a collection of boys and girls from Glennallen, Tok and Utqiagvik who have played 15 games this season but can count the number of times they have practiced together on one hand.
It’s not easy to get everyone together. Glennallen and Tok are about 140 miles apart, and Utqiagvik is hundreds of miles away -- a 500-mile plane ride to Fairbanks, usually followed by either a 250-mile drive to Glennallen or a 200-mile drive to Tok.
But don’t call them the Glennallen Panthers. Or the Tok Wolverines, or the Barrow Whalers. They are the Alaska Heat, and while every kid on the team has an allegiance to one of those schools, they gladly put aside school pride in order to play high school hockey.
“I don’t really care what we’re called,” Dawson Young, a forward who is a junior from Tok, said with a shrug.
What he and his teammates care about is playing high school hockey, something that wouldn’t be possible if the towns didn’t combine forces.
The Heat have seven players from Glennallen, seven from Tok and three from Utqiagvik, said head coach Alex Andrews, a teacher in Glennallen. They have three coaches -- Andrews and Mel Matthews in Glennallen and Shawn Champagne in Tok --- and the Utqiagvik players are guided by Darryl Serino, the father of two players and the man who makes youth hockey happen in America’s northernmost city.
When you look at a map of Alaska, the triangle formed by those places creates a long, narrow footprint with more square miles than most college conferences.
“It’s definitely something that’s different,” Andrews said. "When a lot of people hear about it for the first time, their reaction is kind of shocked: ‘How do you make that work?' ’'
Snapchat, for one thing.
“We practice the same drills, and we talk on social media,” said defenseman Cassidy Matthews, a senior from Glennallen. The players are all part of a Snapchat group chat and they’re on it “all the time,” Young said.
Teaming up with other towns is nothing new in Alaska high school sports. A volleyball team made up of players from Glennallen and Kenny Lake -- aka Glenny Lake -- won the Class 2A state high school championship in 2018, and last fall Monroe Catholic in Fairbanks had to add players from Tri-Valley High School in Healy, a town 110 miles away, in order to field a football team.
When it comes to hockey in Interior Alaska’s small towns, the player pool has always been geographically gigantic. The Alaska Heat is part of a USA Hockey youth program with players from Tok, Glennallen, Delta, Healy and sometimes even Kodiak. For the last couple of years, Glennallen, Tok and sometimes Kenny Lake, which is 40 miles from Glennallen, have fielded a combined high school team, and this year the Alaska School Activities Association gave the Heat permission to add players from Utqiagvik.
That turned out to be a season-saving move -- the team’s only goaltender is Charlie Taui, a senior from Utqiagvik. “We did have another goalie, but she broke her hand,” Andrews said.
The Heat finished second in the Aurora Conference with a 10-2 record and are 13-2 overall heading into the Division II state tournament that begins Thursday at the Patty Center in Fairbanks. They’re seeded sixth in the eight-team bracket and will face third-seeded Palmer in the first round.
In two games last weekend against Monroe, the Heat didn’t look like a bunch of strangers. Quite the opposite, in fact.
After Friday’s Senior Night pregame ceremony honored Matthews and Aisake Finau of Glennallen, Taui and Micah Serino of Utqiagvik and Richard Charlie of Tok, the whole team huddled behind its goal. “1-2-3 Heat!” they cried, a cheer that doubled as a plea on a night when the temperature hovered around minus 10.
The Heat won the faceoff and controlled play for nearly the entire 45 minutes. They moved the puck well and often looked for the best shot instead of the first shot. They were particularly sharp on special teams -- the first four goals in their 11-1 win were shorthanded.
“We blend together really well," Matthews said. "I can’t imagine how we’d be if we all played together all the time and practiced.”
A crowd of about 50 spectators stood along the boards and on the deck of the Donna Tollman Hockey Complex, which houses a Zamboni on the first floor and no-frills locker rooms on the second floor. A dozen or more little kids paid no attention to the game and instead built an igloo-inspired snow fort that was taller than them by end of the night.
During intermission, players and officials retreated inside the small, heated building to warm up and strategize. Mostly to warm up.
Outdoor hockey in the Interior can be bone-crushingly cold, although last weekend’s single-digit subzero temperatures weren’t nearly as bad as it gets. In late January, the final game of the Ice Cube Classic in Glennallen — a round-robin high school tournament featuring the Heat, Tri Valley, Delta and North Pole — was canceled when the temperature dropped to minus 31.
“I just wear a face mask and nice leather gloves. Your feet, you have to ignore," said Micah Serino, a goal-scoring machine. “Your stick is meant to flex, but if it’s so cold and you take a good shot, it’ll break.”
Young said he wears wool under his gear and recommends chemical hand warmers and toe warmers, although toe warmers can bunch up inside a skate. His other advice: Don’t put your tongue on your mouthpiece. It hurts.
Tok has an enclosed ice rink but only the bleachers get any heat, Young said. Utqiagvik has a rink covered by a tent-like dome with nearby warmup shacks, according to Serino. Glennallen’s two rinks, which sit next to the high school and are bordered by woods on one side, provide no protection from snow or freezing temperatures. Bold and cold.
“It’s been an eye-opening and amazing experience for me, because it’s not the kind of hockey I was used to growing up,” said Andrews, who is from Idaho and has been teaching in Glennallen for two years.
“We paint the lines on our rink, and when we did that this year the ownership that some of the kids take was so cool to see. It’s their rink and it’s their lines that they’re putting down, and they want to make sure it’s perfect. It made me realize how many rinks I played on growing up and never thought about who took the time and effort to put the lines down. This is all about having people come together to get things done. For our community and Tok and Barrow, individually and collectively, that’s what we’ve been trying to do, come together.”
The Alaska Heat’s players and coaches aren’t sure exactly how many times the whole team has come together for practice this season, but they agree it’s been no more than five times. Tok and Glennallen players get together more frequently, but each round-trip flight for the Utqiagvik players costs a few hundred dollars, which their school doesn’t pay for, although Serino said the contingent gets some donations.
The kids are used to a lot of travel, which is a fact of life if you’re a high school athlete in rural Alaska. But for the Heat’s three players from Utqiagvik, the trip home is almost cruel: There are no direct flights there from Fairbanks, so they have to fly to Anchorage and catch a non-stop home from here.
Logistics are so crazy that the team’s first practice this season was in Anchorage.
There was no ice in Glennallen at the start of the season because it was too warm. The Heat opened the season with two games in Juneau, so everyone arrived in Anchorage a night early so they could practice at the O’Malley Sports Complex, less than 24 hours before their first game.
“We were out of shape," Matthews said. “You can’t compare dryland (training) to being on ice.”
The practice was just one benefit from the season-opening trip, she said: “That first weekend really helped bond us, because we don’t usually fly.” Except for the Utqiagvik kids, that is.
A couple of practices happened in Tok. When the Heat has games in Fairbanks, Glennallen players drive to Tok and Utqiagvik players fly to Fairbanks and drive to Tok, where they practice Thursday night. They drive to Fairbanks the next day for games Friday and Saturday, and then everyone goes their separate ways.
“We love it when we have to all have to go someplace and stay together, because that’s more time to interact and engage with each,” Andrews said. “We all know each other, but it’s good to have more time to be together as a team. "We’re trying to build that idea of unity and cohesiveness.”
It’s working. Andrews said that at a game in Fairbanks earlier this season, the announcer kept calling the team the Glennallen Panthers until one of the players skated over to the scorekeeper to say, “Hey, we’re the Alaska Heat.”