The 2023 girls high school state hockey tournament took place at Ben Boeke Ice Arena this past week and concluded with the Dimond/West team beating the Fairbanks Arctic Bears 3-0 on Saturday afternoon.
But in some ways, the final result of the championship game wasn’t the most significant aspect of the tournament — which featured an expanded number of teams from out of town, for the first time in nearly a decade.
While there’s been a state tournament for girls high school hockey every year dating back to 2003, according to Dimond/West coach Brian Gross, for the past seven years, only four teams participated.
Prior to that, when Alaska School Activities Association presided over the state tournament, there were more teams.
“We’ve been playing with four teams for the last seven years and we always wanted to make it bigger and more exciting for the girls to have the same feel as the boys have,” Gross said. “We got the Valley involved regularly during the season this year, which was a big step.”
They then reached out to Kenai and Fairbanks, and both were also interested in participating in the state tournament.
“It’s been in the works for a few years, we’ve been trying to grow it, and it finally came together this year,” Gross said.
Unlike the 2022 state tournament that featured Anchorage teams exclusively, this year’s championship tourney was able to be structured in a bracket format instead of a round robin format since they had more teams.
“With the bracket format, you can’t afford to have a bad game,” Gross said. “If you lose one game, you can’t win the championship, where with the round robin, you could get away with a loss … you have to come ready to go because one slip-up and you’re out.”
While the out-of-town teams have girls programs in their respective communities, Gross said the hardest aspect for them — due to their distance from potential opponents — is being able to consistently compete in actual games.
“We have enough teams in Anchorage where we can play weekly, where they can’t do that,” Gross said.
When he reserved the time for the tournament at Ben Boeke, he did so with the hopes of being able to have eight teams, but they were only able to get seven.
“We have pretty good girls hockey in Alaska, and it’s great to see them get the opportunities not only with their travel teams but be able to represent their high school,” Gross said.
He’s heard from parents and players all year about how the excitement level for girls high school hockey is up around the state.
“I’m glad a lot of girls play hockey in Alaska,” Dimond/West freshman Hailey Murray said. “It’s a great sport and I’m glad we still have a high school program.”
She’s grateful for the additional competition from the formation and inclusion of out-of-town teams.
Bryce Akagi has been at the helm of the South/Bartlett girls program for the last three years and served as the assistant coach before that. Akagi was also glad to see the sport’s continued growth among girls at the high school level.
“It’s really cool to see the girls’ teams growing,” Akagi said. “It’s good to see Kenai, Fairbanks and the Valley have teams.”
Differences between the boys and girls competitions
The girls’ games, with shorter breaks between periods, move at a faster pace than the boys.
“We just talk about a few key things that they can work on during the next period and we’re back at it,” Akagi said.
Even with their teams being composed of players from multiple schools, their rosters aren’t deep enough for players to rotate as often as the boys can, so they put an emphasis on conditioning and being able to be on the ice for the vast majority of the game if needed.
“It’s pretty critical,” Akagi said. “We’ve been playing with a short bench and have played with as few as five skaters for some games. All these girls play on (club) teams so if their team is out of town, we don’t get them.”
He was impressed with the high caliber of play he saw from some of the out-of-town teams.
“It’s great to see for the girls’ game and great to have that competition pick up and bring them all together here,” Akagi said. “We’ve always been open to having a statewide (tournament) but it’s just been making sure we have the numbers to actually bring teams together.”
Olivia Matson just wrapped up her first official season as co-head coach for the Valley team. She spent time as a volunteer coach growing up and interned as a coach in college as it was her minor as an undergraduate.
She played Division III hockey at Aurora University from 2017-2022. During her five seasons, she totaled 17 goals and 76 points in 109 career games for the Spartans.
Matson grew up in the Mat-Su and graduated from Wasilla High School, where she played hockey and soccer.
Her team featured several first-year players, including their starting goalie, who’s one of five players who were playing on a team for the first time ever this season. The roster consists of players from the Palmer, Houston, Wasilla, Talkeetna and Willow communities.
“We just brought them all together to a central area so it was easy access for everyone to get to,” Matson said.
They hold practices at the Curtis D. Menard Memorial Sports Center in Wasilla and the Palmer Ice Arena.
She is elated and grateful that the teams and communities outside of Anchorage were able take part in the tournament for the first in nearly a decade even though she never got the opportunity.
“When I was playing high school hockey, Anchorage wasn’t allowing the Mat-Su teams to participate because we were too good and they didn’t want to get beat by us,” Matson said. “It’s great to have this opportunity to show them that now that we have a lower selection of players, we’re still able to compete with the Anchorage teams.”
She has also enjoyed seeing the continued growth of the sport for females at the prep level in the Last Frontier over the years and since she graduated high school.
“I think it’s really cool because you don’t see a lot of girls being able to play high school hockey with the boys because they don’t want to get hurt or are more focused on school,” Matson said. “Having this girls high school team and young girls being able to develop to make a bigger team has been really awesome to watch.”