Alaska's two junior hockey teams are meeting on neutral ice this weekend with the hope that in two years from now the state will have twice as many teams.
The Fairbanks Ice Dogs and the Kenai River Brown Bears are playing games in Palmer and Anchorage to give folks a taste of the North American Hockey League, an amateur league for mostly teen-aged players.
With the collapse of the Alaska Aces professional team a year ago, Ice Dogs general manager Rob Proffitt thinks the time may be right for junior hockey to expand in Alaska.
"These games are all a platform for us to showcase junior hockey to the Southcentral area as we continue to work on growing the NAHL," Proffitt said Tuesday. "Our eventual goal is to gain two more teams in Alaska to cut down our travel costs and create an Alaska Division."
The Ice Dogs, the NAHL's best team this season at 43-6-6, and the Brown Bears, the league's worst at 15-37-3, will play Friday at the MTA Events Center in Palmer and Saturday at the O'Malley Center in Anchorage.
Both arenas seat about 1,200, and both have sold about 600 $10 tickets as of Tuesday, Proffitt said.
Sellouts would be nice from a business standpoint, he said, "but that's really quite secondary in the big picture of 'how excited are people to see junior hockey?'
"This is a litmus test to see how junior hockey is going to gain traction in these markets."
The NAHL is USA Hockey's only Tier 2 league. It's for players ages 16-20, and many wind up going on to college hockey. It's a step below the U.S. Hockey League — the only Tier 1 junior league in the nation — and a step above USA Hockey's six Tier 3 leagues.
The Ice Dogs have won three NAHL championships and have been a popular part of the Fairbanks sports scene for 21 years. A handful of players are from Alaska, including forward Tanner Schachle of Wasilla, who earlier this season signed a letter of intent to play Division I hockey for UAA next season, and forward Daniel Haider of Anchorage, who is headed to West Point.
The Brown Bears, who also have several Alaskans on their roster, are in their 12th year of existence. Last year the team announced it was folding because of financial difficulties, but an outpouring of fan support and fundraising saved the team.
Alaska once had three NAHL teams. The Alaska Avalanche started as the Wasilla Spirit in 2005, became the Avalanche a year later and was disbanded and sold by 2012.
Proffitt sees Wasilla, Palmer, Eagle River and Anchorage as potential sites for future NAHL teams. The goal, he said, is to add two Alaska teams by the 2019-20 season.
He said one ownership group is already interested. "We're under a confidentiality agreement right now, but we're (going) down a path," he said.
An Anchorage team could play at the O'Malley Center, Ben Boeke Arena or even Sullivan Arena, he said.
"There's a real big niche there with the Aces gone," Proffitt said.
But filling that niche won't be cheap. Proffitt estimates it will cost $1 million to start an NAHL team, a price that includes a $400,000 franchise free.
Annual operating costs range from $750,000 to $1.2 million in Alaska, although Proffitt said teams could save about $250,000 a year on travel with the addition of two new teams.
"One of the goals here is to reduce our travel costs," he said. "We subsidize all the teams that come up to play us, so we're trying to reduce that."