Alaska Aces Hockey

As the end nears for the Alaska Aces, a look back at a rich history

The signs are sobering, and they were slapped on the Alaska Aces offices last month — "For SALE" on the north side, "For LEASE" on the west side.

The end is imminent.

Mathematically, there remains the faintest chance the Aces can still make the ECHL playoffs. Still, it's no better than a shot in the dark for a professional hockey franchise that will go dark at season's end because of mounting financial losses.

The odds say Saturday night's game against the Idaho Steelheads will be the last in franchise history, the final chapter after 15 seasons, 14 of them in the ECHL, under the current ownership that resurrected the Aces from bankruptcy.

A standing-room-only crowd is expected to pack Sullivan Arena. After that, the building's most frequent tenant will vanish, and the most popular, most accomplished sports team in Alaska will disappear too.

Rob Murray looks back at his six seasons as bench boss and feels proud of the team he assembled for the 2013-14 season, when the Aces seized the third Kelly Cup in franchise history. That Cup followed similar feats under coach Brent Thompson in 2011 and coach Davis Payne in 2006.

Murray's goaltending coach, Gerald Coleman, thinks of his career in the Aces net as the years when he started his life over again, found himself, regained his love for the game and backstopped his boys to two Cups.

Terry Parks, the managing member of the ownership group, remembers the thrill of winning the 2006 Cup in the franchise's third season in the ECHL, a circuit two rungs below the NHL. He still winces at the pain of telling his employees the franchise is folding, that they'll have but one week's work after season's end.

[Photos: Game night with the Alaska Aces as the franchise nears an end]

For star center Stephen Perfetto, the Aces and Anchorage mark the place where a coach believed in him, furnished him the opportunity to blossom and climb hockey's ladder. Like nearly all of his teammates, Perfetto will become a free agent at season's end, another guy looking for work. Given his breakout season, he'll enjoy ample suitors.

Besides, hunting a new gig is the minor-league reality, the itinerant life of an independent contractor. And hockey clubs folding, relocating or suspending operations is an ECHL reality — at least 10 teams have done so in the last seven years, and the Elmira Jackals are joining the Aces in shutting down at the end of this season.

Come the end, everything will be inventoried — hockey equipment, training equipment, flat-screen televisions, computers, an industrial washer and dryer, skate sharpeners. All of those items — worth an estimated $150,000, Parks said — will be kept in the event someone or some entity buys the franchise and relocates it.

As for the banners that hang inside the arena and proclaim Kelly Cup titles and sundry other club accomplishments? The retired jersey numbers draped on Sullivan's walls? The giant American flag that hangs on the west wall at Sullivan?

"You want to hang it at your house?'' Parks asked in a moment of levity, a break from the funereal and forlorn.

Parks said he hasn't yet given such minor details a second's thought — too busy trying to make the playoffs.

Most everything will be loaded inside a 40-foot Conex shipping container. The door will swing shut — not just on the equipment, but also on a franchise, and an era.

All that will remain are memories.

The Big Rig 

The story sounds apocryphal, a tale gradually embroidered until it developed into urban legend. But Cam Keith, the man who knows, confirms its authenticity — for years, he really couldn't buy a drink in this town.

Keith delivered arguably the most memorable goal in Aces history when his strike in triple overtime of Game 6 in the divisional finals eliminated the Las Vegas Wranglers, 4-3, on the way to the first Kelly Cup in franchise history.

Keith is quick to note that Chris Minard's dagger in the second overtime of Game 7 of the conference finals to eliminate the Fresno Falcons and send the Aces to the Cup Finals "actually carried more weight.'' Still, 11 years later, he is forever linked to his goal in triple OT.

Keith recalls that Wranglers winger Charles Linglet, his former Aces teammate, committed a turnover in neutral ice. He recalls that his center, Olivier Filion, chipped the puck to him on right wing as he skated into the Wranglers' zone. He recalls that winger Barrett Heisten barreled down the left wing, on the back door, and called for the puck. And he remembers he was exhausted, too gassed to leverage his body and attempt a pass to Heisten.

Keith fired a wrist shot that Las Vegas goaltender Marc Magliarditi rebuffed, and then Keith swatted his own rebound out of midair and past Magliarditi. He was hopeful his baseball swing with his stick came at a height below the 4-foot level of the crossbar — a requirement for a legal goal.

"I was so tired,'' Keith said. "I just wanted to get a shot on goal. On the rebound, I batted it, and I had to check whether it was below the crossbar. I looked at the ref, and he signaled goal.''

It was 12:06 a.m. inside Sullivan Arena, where some of the standing-room-only crowd of 6,451, including children sleeping in their seats, remained.

And for years, Keith really didn't have to reach for his wallet when slaking his thirst in Anchorage.

"That's why I stayed there in the summer — local celebrity for a while,'' he said this week with a laugh.

These days, Keith is head coach of the Trail Smoke Eaters, the junior club he played for in the British Columbia Hockey League. His big goal still comes up frequently in conversations, and so does the nickname Aces broadcaster Jack Michaels bestowed upon him.

Said Keith: "I called a kid recently — I'm bringing him to a spring camp from Alaska — and his dad got on the phone and the first thing he said was, 'Cam Keith — The Big Rig.' "

Keith was bummed when he heard about the end of the Aces.

"It's a very sad moment for a former player,'' he said. "You fear that history gets killed. That being said, nothing ever fully dies.''

THE VOICE

Keith, the former UAF skater who was listed at 6-foot-3, 225 pounds, got tagged The Big Rig by then-Aces broadcaster Jack Michaels.

"I was looking at him one day when we were at the airport, checking in and picking up luggage — can't quite recall,'' Michaels said. "He was just crowding people, without trying to crowd them. I looked at him and said, 'You're a big person, bigger than what's listed in the program.' "

Michaels hired on with the Aces in 2002, the year before new ownership took over after buying the franchise out of bankruptcy — the previous owner, Mike Cusack Jr., had run the club, then called the Anchorage Aces, into deep debt. Michaels worked for the club for eight seasons, shouldered myriad responsibilities and in 2010 made the jump from the Aces to the NHL — he's the radio voice of the Edmonton Oilers these days.

And he's still amazed at how quickly the club went from a punch line to powerhouse — "34 months from eBay to the title.''

Michaels recalled initially trying to sell sponsorships and getting incredulous looks from business owners.

"They looked at me like, 'Are you kidding? Not a chance,' " Michaels said. "We were thought of as a team being run out of a hotel soon to be condemned.''

Yet, under new ownership, the Aces quickly succeeded. In their second season under that ownership — and their first in the ECHL — the Aces advanced to the second round of the playoffs under Payne, who went on to be an NHL head coach.

Soon, the Aces were the hottest ticket in town, adored by raucous fans known as The Cowbell Crew for the din they generated by ringing their namesake noisemakers.

"We'd tell players, 'Do you want to play in front of 5,000 people who sound like 15,000, or play in front of 2,000 somewhere?' '' Michaels said. "In Anchorage, players were recognized. They were important. They were a mini-NHL.''

Michaels is sad the Aces are folding. He understands the decision, but that doesn't make it any less piercing for a guy who counts his tenure with the club as his formative years as an adult.

"Logically, I understand it; emotionally, it's tough to digest,'' Michaels said. "As owners, it gets to the point you have to do what's responsible for your partners.

"At the same time, it's brutal. It sucks.''

Ironically, the Oilers team Michaels works for includes a player, Patrick Maroon, who is nicknamed The Big Rig. But that's a handle that never passes Michaels' lips on-air.

"I can't bring myself to use it,'' he said. "Number one, I didn't come up with it. And number two, I've already had a Big Rig.''

STANDING WATCH

Gary DiCaprio has worked a part-time security gig at Sullivan Arena for 28 years and been on watch for countless Aces games. The news of the franchise's demise hit him hard.

"I was here when they couldn't give away tickets, so I was devastated,'' he said. "I don't do it for the money. I love working with the public and I've got to meet so many fantastic Aces fans.

"I'm going to miss the Aces, but I'm really going to miss the fans and my co-workers.''

For years, DiCaprio said, he worked the Aces' regular-season games and attended playoff games as a fan, often with his son Justin.

DiCaprio was off-duty but on-hand for the famous triple overtime game that Cam Keith ended. He was seated on the "wet side'' of the arena, where alcohol is permitted, and he laughingly remembers beer concessions ceased when the game headed into multiple overtimes.

"I'm thinking, 'C'mon, I'm starting to sober up,' '' DiCaprio said.

‘SAY IT WITH ME …’

Bob Lester has been the Aces' public address announcer for so long he's not quite certain whether this is his 20th season or his 21st.

But the longtime Anchorage radio personality remembers exactly how he came up with one of his PA staples. Each season, Lester emphasizes a certain skater when that player is part of the announced scoring line courtesy of scoring the goal or assisting on it. Lester gets the crowd to act as chorus — fans recite the player's number and name with him — when he announces the goal.

For instance, this season: "Aces goal coming at 10:52 of the third period, scoring his 33rd goal of the season — say it with me — No. 91, Peter Sivak.''

Lester started his signature call one night when he was sick and losing his voice back in the days of the Anchorage Aces. Center Keith Street kept putting up points that evening.

"My throat was toast and I said, 'Folks, you gotta say it with me,' and the reason was I didn't have much voice left,'' Lester said. "I was like, 'That was kinda cool, let's keep doing that.' ''

Over the years, the signature call spotlighted Street, Dean Larson, Scott Gomez, Olivier Filion, Wes Goldie, Nick Mazzolini and Sivak.

Lester figures he'll be more bummed about the absence of the Aces next October, when the ECHL season annually starts.

"I feel most badly for little kids — for them, this is their team,'' Lester said. "You know it's going to come to an end, and it's going to be tough.''

SECTION 120, ROW 10, SEATS 2 & 3

For Molly Baker of Eagle River and her daughter, Stacey, Aces games haven't just furnished entertainment. Game night has also been the catalyst for forging friendships — "hockey family,'' Molly said — with fans who sit near the Bakers' season-ticket seats in Section 120, Row 10, Seats 2 and 3.

"It's not just about hockey,'' Molly said. "It's about the rhythm of the winter, about socialization.''

Molly and Stacey started attending games in 2003-04, the Aces' first season in the ECHL. They bought season tickets the next season and haven't stopped since.

"The Aces could be picking up garbage along the Glenn Highway and we'd go watch it,'' Molly said.

Their seats are located at the northwest corner of the rink, near the net the Aces shoot at in the first and third periods. So it was they had a prime view of Cam Keith's triple-OT dagger. Stacey, a preschool teacher, had to work the next morning and she recalls her immediate reaction to Keith's goal: "I can go home and sleep.''

Molly keeps her ear firmly to the ice, so she was surprised she didn't hear any hint of the Aces' demise prior to the team's announcement in February.

"I usually hear rumors, and I didn't hear rumors,'' Molly said. "It was shock, disbelief.''

Molly said she and her daughter love geo-caching — tracking down hidden objects by using GPS coordinates. That hobby has taken them places they never would have seen, much as Aces games have introduced them to people they otherwise wouldn't have met.

After 14 seasons of watching the Aces, the rhythm of their winters won't be quite the same come October.

"What are we going to do?'' Molly asked her daughter.

"I don't know,'' Stacey said.

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