Time will be the ultimate arbiter in determining where exactly the Anchorage Wolverines fit into the community’s long-term sports landscape.
Fans bought fewer tickets when the paid professionals lost more hockey games than they won, which only helped hasten the end of the ECHL’s Alaska Aces. A morbid winning percentage plus the state’s fiscal health pushed the NCAA Division I program at the University of Alaska Anchorage to the brink of extinction until a miraculous fundraising effort afforded the program a chance to reimagine itself about a year from now.
After only their 12th game overall and third on home ice Sunday, the Wolverines showed promise in their 4-1 North American Hockey League win over the visiting Springfield (Ill.) Junior Blues. The Tier II junior squad of players under 21 entertained the packed announced crowd of 966, where the goaltenders were among the small percentage of people adhering to the city’s new mask mandate.
“Obviously, there is some pressure to build this into something,” said Raythan Robbins, the evening’s winning goalie and a local 19-year old Dimond grad playing in Anchorage for the first time four years. “But at the end of the day, we’re just all good hockey players playing hockey.
“We’re enjoying ourselves, doing in front of these people. They’ve given us energy when it’s needed.”
The NAHL features more than two dozen teams in 17 states and it sanctioned by USA Hockey. Players do not receive a salary, and players from out of town live with host families. The objective for most is to earn a scholarship with a Division I college team.
“We’re all working towards that same goal,” said Robbins, who made 24 saves and moved to 5-0-1 in six starts. “But the more team success we have, the more individual success.”
The Wolverines improved to 7-4-1 and won the three-game weekend series. They opened with a 6-2 win Friday before Springfield took Saturday’s tilt, 5-2. Anchorage’s own Andy Ramsey, Cameron Morris, Colin Hedland, Skylar Gutierrez and Aiden Westin accounted for a goal and five assists in the series finale.
Sunday’s game experience offered a mix of new and old.
Anchorage’s color scheme and uniforms gave off a definite mid-90s New York Islanders’ fisherman logo vibe, a mixture of teal, white, blue and orange. It’s a fresh look. Boeke also features a new scoreboard and sound system. The infamous Snickers and Blockbuster Video billboards above the benches have been replaced with new sponsors.
Meanwhile, the cowbells were back. Calls to “make some noise” or “wait for a stoppage in play to move from your seat” brought back memories of the Aces’ glory days of yesteryear.
Talon Sigurdson soaked it all in during the weekend slate. The 19-year old from Sartell, Minnesota, spent last season bouncing between lower junior-league teams in Texas and Maine. He scored his NAHL-leading 13th goal to open the scoring at 3 minutes, 33 seconds of the opening period.
“Coming up here to a first-year team, no one expects anything from us,” Sigurdson said. “They expect us to be a bad team, but the show we’ve been putting on has been unbelievable.”
Sigurdson said the young makeup of the team has helped build enthusiasm on the ice and in the dressing room. It’s a small sample of home games, but the players, many for the first time, have taken a responsibility in entertaining those in attendance.
“Last year in Maine, no one came to watch games, it was all parents,” Sigurdson said. “Now we’re here and it’s loud. These have been the loudest games I’ve played in.”
Anchorage is off until it welcomes Janesville (Wisc.) to town for a pair of games Oct. 29-30.
Robbins remains eager to see what’s next. He’s elated to play in front of family, friends and new fans all while sleeping in his childhood bedroom. Prior to graduating in 2020, he spent a few seasons in Michigan playing for some renowned AAA youth teams where he’d attend high schools in the area.
He said none those kids knew who he was, or much cared. Sunday, he was in his hometown and named the game’s first star.
“I couldn’t be more excited,” he said. “I love it.”
Veteran journalist Matt Nevala can be found on social media at @MNevala9.