Anchorage Wolverines look to follow junior hockey recipe for success in Alaska

Where the Aces folded, the UAA Seawolves have struggled and the original Anchorage Wolverines went extinct, Alaska’s newest hockey team has the optimism of youth.

The recently formed Anchorage Wolverines joined the Fairbanks Ice Dogs and Kenai River Brown Bears in the North American Hockey League in March, and the Tier II team is hoping junior hockey will be the right fit for Alaska’s biggest city.

Season tickets are on sale, a coach has been hired -- Mike Aikens of Minnesota -- and a roster is being built. All the Wolverines need now is a place to play.

Plans to play at Sullivan Arena are on hold as the city of Anchorage debates what’s next for Alaska’s biggest sports facility, which was converted to a homeless shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Team president Kai Binkley Sims has said both Ben Boeke Ice Arena next door to Sullivan and the McDonald Center in Eagle River are possible alternatives.

“We would definitely prefer that our first games are played in Anchorage,” she said on July 15. “We’ll look at Eagle River as an option if we have to.”

Billing itself as “the league of opportunity,” the NAHL is primarily for players ages 16-20 who are intent on making college hockey part of their future. That opportunity also provides teams with a key to success — fewer bills.

“The junior hockey financial model is a lot different than the professional model,” Sims said recently. “We don’t have to pay our players, we don’t have to pay their insurance, we don’t have to house them, their parents pay billet families to house them. There’s a lot fewer expenses in this model of a team. It’s one that’s worked all across the country.”

For more than 25 years, the Aces’ professional approach also worked. The minor-league team had its fair share of victories and fans, but the costs eventually proved too steep when the fan base dwindled. The owners sold the team in 2017, and the franchise moved to Portland, Maine.

While the Wolverines won’t have to take care of their players’ living expenses, the cost of doing business in Alaska remains high. The traditional downfall for Alaska teams that regularly play Lower 48 teams is travel costs. They add up fast when you are booking plane tickets for an entire hockey team and its gear.

Compounding the problem since the 1970s, when the Anchorage Northern Knights played in the Continental Basketball Association, is Alaska teams typically must subsidize traveling expenses for opponents coming here in order to gain membership in Lower 48 leagues.

This remains true for Alaska’s NAHL teams, which have a partnership with Alaska Airlines that provides a limited amount of credit for airfare but doesn’t defray the cost of ground transportation, hotels or food, which Alaska teams also cover.

If the stars are aligned -- as they were in the 1990s for the Seawolves when they were winning a lot and consistently drawing more than 4,500 fans a game at Sullivan Arena -- the costs are manageable.

In those days UAA created enough revenue to keep the books balanced, but there wasn’t much margin for error. Picking up much of the tab for visiting teams was a fiscal hardship.

“Any game in Anchorage was an away game for us. Because we were paying for the plane fare, we were paying for hotels,” said Brush Christiansen, the founder and former longtime coach of UAA hockey.

When the Seawolves joined the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, an NCAA Division I powerhouse hockey conference, the losses mounted, and empty seats at Sullivan Arena started outnumbering fans. The difficulties were compounded by a fixed-rate rental agreement the municipality had in place.

For the Wolverines, fluctuating attendance will be taken into account by the city, Binkley Sims said. She didn’t provide specifics, but she said the amount the city will charge the Wolverines “depends on how many people you have in there.”

While Fairbanks has had a junior team for 25 years and offers a template for success, the Kenai River Brown Bears nearly went out of business four years ago but were spared by a massive fundraising campaign. The idea of an Anchorage franchise was hatched in 2018 at one of the fundraisers.

The ownership group for the Wolverines includes Aaron Schutt, Ryan Binkley, Kai Binkley Sims, John Ellsworth Jr. and Jay Frawner. Binkley and Binkley Sims are part of the Binkley Co., which also owns the Anchorage Daily News.

Binkley Sims is from Fairbanks, as is her brother, Ryan Binkley, and they know how that city has embraced the Ice Dogs. The team averages about 2,200 spectators a night at the Big Dipper Ice Arena, said Fairbanks general manager Rob Proffitt.

The team is a nonprofit organization, and the community is an integral part of the franchise. Two youth hockey associations -- Hockey Club Fairbanks and the Arctic Lions/Northern Alaska Hockey Association -- each run a food concession booth, and the Ice Dogs get a percentage of the profit.

The Ice Dogs are in charge of selling beer, another money-maker. Proffitt said he thinks the municipality’s cut of beer sales is 15%.

Ice Dogs ticket prices vary from $10-20. The city rents the Big Dipper for the price of the ice time, around $900 per night, plus an event fee. The team pays for everything else: concession workers, ushers, cashiers, bartenders, security and janitorial service. “All in for a game night is about $4,000,” Proffitt said.

The cost of renting Sullivan Arena could vary from $5,000 to $7,500 per game for a crowd of 2,500 to nearly $15,000 for a crowd of 6,000, according to an estimate from arena general manager Jon Dyson.

Exact rental costs have yet to be nailed down, and the revenue-sharing percentages between the team, the arena and third-party concession vendors remain in flux. “We’re still working out everything right now,” Dyson said.

Additionally, the Wolverines plan to practice at Sullivan Arena, which Dyson said costs about $450 an hour to rent.

Proffitt said practice costs are roughly $20,000 a season at the Big Dipper, where the Ice Dogs usually practices four times a week for 90 minutes when not on the road.

The Wolverines have a contract with Sullivan Arena -- Alaska’s largest sports venue -- but they are considering other options because of the uncertainty surrounding Sullivan’s availability.

In June, Binkley Sims said Ben Boeke Ice Arena was a potential alternative. In July, she said the McDonald Center in Eagle River is another option. Sullivan can hold more than 6,000 fans, Ben Boeke has room for about 1,000 and the McDonald Center has a capacity of about 1,100.

The Wolverines open the season in Richfield, Minn., against the Minnesota Magicians on Sept. 24. Their first home game is scheduled for Oct. 15 against the Springfield (Illinois) Junior Blues.