WASILLA — Minutes after experiencing one of those unforgettable sports moments, Homer’s Hunter Green stood a skate stride or two from where it went down and tried his best to assess things.
“In this time, it’s so weird,” Green said while standing on the northeast end of the ice at the Menard Memorial Center. “It’s such a blessing to even be out here on the ice because some teams weren’t allowed to play because of the situation.”
Green scored an unassisted power-play goal at 3 minutes, 2 seconds of overtime Saturday afternoon to lift the Mariners to a messy but memorable 3-2 victory over Palmer in the Division II state hockey championship game.
Homer, making its third straight appearance in the title game, wisely hung tough in a world of COVID-19 protocols to hoist the First National Cup for the second consecutive year. Green was the first to take the Cup from Alaska School Activities Association executive director Billy Strickland at the conclusion of a scaled-down postgame ceremony.
“It felt so good to grab,” Green said. “But I really felt like I was taking it for a lot of my teammates, because we had a number of people who throughout the season were unable to play. I’m glad I got to do it for them.”
Like them or not, pandemic mitigation plans changed the way Homer, Palmer and all of Alaska’s high school hockey teams took on the season. Only eight of the state’s 13 DII hockey teams played any sanctioned regular-season games and those eight made up the tournament bracket. Tri-Valley of Healy skated only twice before losing state tournament games Thursday and Friday.
Division II is for schools with enrollments of 850 or fewer students, and at least they got a state tournament. ASAA canceled the Division I tournament for larger schools, although Anchorage’s Cook Inlet Conference boys teams are set to play a regular season beginning in mid-March. Anchorage’s girls teams completed their season earlier this month on outdoor ice.
Teams at the Menard Center played each shift with facemasks under their usual helmet cages and shields. Fans at Saturday’s game were spread out and totaled about 150 in an ideal venue for Alaska high school hockey.
None of these differences or changes were lost on Green and his Homer teammates. The Mariners won only two of seven regular-season games before three straight victories here earned them a championship. They finished the season with a 5-5 record.
“It was the sort of thing where we wanted to make sure to play our best game for those who couldn’t be at state,” Green said.
Homer had to come back from a two-goal deficit after a strong start by the Moose, who finished with a 6-4 record.
Palmer’s Xander Logan came out of the right corner and snapped a shot past Mariners goaltender Keegan Strong at 1:12 of the first period. Moose junior Nathan Wheeler stood by his lonesome and converted on Matias Broughton’s centering pass from behind the net 26 seconds later.
After the game, Palmer sophomore Stuart McQuillin and senior Owen Hayes were the last two Moose on the ice. They stood on the opposing blue line and painfully watched Homer celebrate.
“We just need to come out fighting harder next year,” McQuillin said as he bent down with his stick across his knees.
Palmer beat Homer in overtime for the 2019 championship, its lone DII championship. The Moose also won the 1989 Division I title.
After his rough start in net, Strong rebounded in a big way. He faced 24 more shots and stopped them all.
“I erased those goals from my head and was determined from there,” Strong said. “I told myself to throw in an extra 10%.”
Homer chipped away while struggling with zone time and puck possession during ample power-play opportunities — seven to Palmer’s two.
The Mariners’ resurgence started with a Casey Otis goal with an extra attacker at 3:05 of the second period.
Junior Matfrey Reutov tied the game 2-2 with a snipe from the low-left circle at 6:20 of the third, beating Palmer’s Jackson Heard (31 saves) across his body high glove-side.
Palmer logged 27 penalty minutes to the Mariners’ four. Yet no one can fault Broughton for his hooking infraction 2:26 into overtime. He had to do it because Homer freshman Dylan Arno had a clear step on him and broke in on Heard down the right wing.
Thirty-six seconds after the penalty, Green was positioned with his back to the end boards along the goal line and used his right-handed shot to bang a loose puck high past Heard. It beat the goalie as he guarded the near left post.
“My mind went blank,” Green said. “I wasn’t thinking. I was tired and I knew my team was probably tired.
“It was so, so special.”
Matt Nevala co-hosts “The Sports Guys” radio show, Saturdays at 11 a.m. on KHAR AM 590 and FM 96.7 (@cbssports590). Find him on social media at @MNevala9.
ASAA Division II First National Cup
Homer 3, Palmer 2 OT
Homer 4, North Pole 1
Palmer 6, Soldotna 1
Jacob Begich, Kenai Central
Christopher Hodges, Monroe Catholic
Dylan Walton, Soldotna
Gavin Haakenson, Soldotna
Austin Manns, North Pole
Daigen Johnson, North Pole
Jeremy Horacek, Palmer
Carter Greco, Palmer
Jackson Heard, Palmer
Keegan Strong, Homer
Hunter Green, Homer
Casey Otis, Homer