Sig Jokiel, whose experiences as a hockey player and a hockey dad inspired him to significantly change the hockey scene in Anchorage, died last week at the age of 80.
Jokiel, whose only child was a girl who loved hockey, in the late 1980s teamed up with Gary Miller to create the pioneering Firebirds girls hockey program, the first all-girls youth team in Alaska. The program went on to spearhead a long legal battle that ended with girls getting an equal shot at ice time in Anchorage.
In the late 1990s, as a player on an old-timers hockey team weary of having to play at midnight because of limited ice availability, Jokiel and a business partner developed the arena off O’Malley Drive that brought two new ice sheets to a hockey-crazy town.
“We would not have those two rinks if it weren’t for him,” said Jim Mayes, a UAA hockey alumnus who helped Jokiel coach the Firebirds during the team’s early days. “Sig was a quiet man but very well connected throughout the business community and hockey community. I never met anyone who didn’t like Sig. He was a great, salt-of-the-earth guy.”
Jokiel died Friday morning after one of his lungs collapsed, daughter Carrie Jokiel said.
He was born in Germany and came to Alaska with his older brother, Berni, to attend the University of Alaska Fairbanks in the early 1960s. He went on to start a construction company before moving into environmental clean-up work. Carrie Jokiel now runs that business, ChemTrack Alaska, Inc.
Jokiel met his wife, Gayl, at UAF, and both Jokiel brothers played college hockey for the Nanooks. Sig was a member of the 1961-62 team that was the first to be called “the Nanooks,” and he kept playing until he was about 70.
“He was a guy that would skate with the 49ers old-timers group three times a week,” Mayes said. “The guy was on the ice constantly.”
Jokiel’s playing days ended 10 years ago when he was paralyzed in a ski accident at Alyeska.
“He caught an edge and ended up breaking his neck,” Carrie said. “He did not recover to walk again, even though he worked every day toward that goal.”
He seldom returned to the rink after his injury, she said, except to watch his granddaughter, 12-year-old Will Jokiel, who plays for an Alaska Oilers U12 team. She’s a defenseman, just like her grandfather.
“On his birthday she had tryouts, and he came to the rink and watched her,” Carrie said. “(One of the coaches) told her, ‘Hey, Grandpa’s here, you better turn it up.’ ‘’
Jokiel turned 80 on Aug. 4, a milestone celebrated a couple of days later with a large outdoor gathering that included many of Anchorage’s old-time hockey players.
A couple of weeks later, on Aug. 21, Jokiel attended an Alaska Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremony that honored the 1996 Firebirds team, which won the U19 national championships.
“It was huge that he got to be there for that and be in the photo,” Carrie said.
His advocacy for gender equity in hockey was organic in nature, she said.
“I’m his only child, so I was his daughter and his son. He was a hockey player and so I got into hockey and then he recognized there wasn’t a girls program here and it just seemed so natural for him to say, ‘Let’s start one.’ ‘’
Carrie Jokiel is 43 now, and she vividly remembers her dad guiding her through difficulties she encountered as a trail-blazing girl playing what was considered a sport for boys.
“We had to change in the bathroom at Ben Boeke and there were five of us in there. I just wanted to have our own locker room,” she said.
Arena officials said no, and Sig Jokiel told his daughter to keep asking every day for the next week. The answer was always no, and after a week, Carrie asked her dad what to do next.
“I want you to go into the lobby and start dressing,” he told her.
And so she did.
“I started gearing down,” she said, “and out came the (rink) manager saying ‘What are you doing?’ And I said, ‘I’ve asked for a locker room at every practice for a week. We are changing in the bathroom, in the toilet, and that’s unacceptable.’
“And wouldn’t you know it, we got a locker room.”
After opening doors for girls, Sig Jokiel later helped provide players of all ages and genders with more places to play.
He knew there was more demand than there was ice in Anchorage, so he and business partner Steve Agni developed what is now the Royal Business Systems Ice Arena off O’Malley Drive.
“Through his job and his connections and Sig being who he is, he got idea of building the rink for his men’s league group (so) they wouldn’t have to skate at midnight or 1 in the morning,” Mayes said. “His other (plan) was to have a restaurant there where they could have a place to have a drink afterwards.”
That restaurant, the Blue Line, will play host to a celebration of life for Jokiel tenatively planned for Thursday, Oct. 7, his daughter said.
“It’ll be one big locker room,” she said, “and everybody can tell their stories.”