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High school hockey will look different this school year as Anchorage looks to spring and Fairbanks considers heading outdoors

  • Author: Beth Bragg
  • Updated: December 10, 2020
  • Published December 10, 2020

Anchorage teams plan to hibernate until mid-March and Fairbanks teams are considering playing outdoors in order to salvage their high school hockey seasons.

With indoor competitions forbidden in Anchorage and only one indoor rink available for games in Fairbanks, school districts in both places are searching for alternatives.

The season typically starts in early November but the Alaska School Activities Association delayed things until early January because of COVID-19 concerns.

However, a spring season appears to be in store for Anchorage’s Cook Inlet Conference teams.

Tentative plans include a March 15 start for practice followed by a regular season that would wrap up in early May, followed by the CIC tournament, according to longtime Dimond High coach Dennis Sorenson.

ASAA has signed off on the plan, executive director Billy Strickland said Thursday. Other conferences will stick to the winter schedule.

In Fairbanks, outdoor hockey looks likely, West Valley activities director Wayne Sawchuck said.

Two indoor rinks in Fairbanks — the Patty Center and the Big Dipper Arena — are allowing practices but not games, and the Carlson Center isn’t available at all. North Pole’s Polar Ice Rink is allowing games, but there’s a lot of competition for ice time, Sawchuck said.

And so outdoor hockey could be the way to go.

“We want to give our kids the opportunity, so we’re looking into that right now,” Sawchuck said.

At a recent team meeting West Valley players indicated they’re willing to play games outdoors, Sawchuck said.

“If we can provide a couple practices a week and a game a week — they have a lot of pride, they want to play high school hockey. Even if it’s limited schedule, they’ll do it,” he said.

Outdoor hockey in Fairbanks could also be called extreme hockey — the city sees below-zero temperatures all of the time in January, and the school district allows outdoor competitions until the temperature dips below minus-15.

Sawchuck grew up playing outdoor hockey in Kenora, Ontario, and came to Fairbanks in 1989 to play hockey for UAF. Until very recently, he said, he never would have advocated for high school teams to play games outdoors.

“Normally I would say no — up until the last nine months,” he said. “The kids need each other, they need the physical activity. And coaches are such good mentors, touching base on their academic state and always doing grade-checks, and that’s a big thing too.”

In Anchorage, no indoor competitions are currently allowed under city health mandates, and with COVID-19 cases mounting daily, that prohibition could last through the winter.

With those restrictions in mind — and having seen how COVID-19 disrupted the football and volleyball seasons — Cook Inlet Conference coaches turned their thoughts to spring.

“We had some meetings in October and have been working with ASAA and (the Anchorage School District) since then to create a spring season, hoping that COVID would slow down by then and we’d be able to have somewhat of a full season, for our seniors especially, and not have too many interruptions,” Sorenson said.

The ASD isn’t allowing schools to travel outside the district for competitions anyway, so a spring season for Anchorage wouldn’t impact Alaska’s other hockey-playing schools.

“The only drawback is there’s other sports going on at that time, but most hockey players don’t play another sport like they used to,” Sorenson said. For the handful of hockey players who also run track or play soccer, “we’d just share them, as we should.”

A spring season could have an unintended upside, Sorenson said — more kids might play.

During a normal year, the high school hockey season happens at the same time as the comp hockey season, and ASAA has rules that limit — but do not forbid — dual participation. As a result, some kids just play comp hockey.

A spring season would happen after the comp season ends, eliminating most conflicts.

“I think it could be one of the better seasons we’ve had in a few years, because every single kid that wants to should be able to play high school hockey, because their comp seasons will be winding down,” Sorenson said. “I’m super, super excited.”

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