Rivalries have to start somewhere. This one starts Friday at Ben Boeke Ice Arena.
The Anchorage Wolverines, an expansion team in the North American Hockey League, play host to the Fairbanks Ice Dogs in a two-game series this weekend that marks the franchise’s first against its northern neighbor.
For many of the players, however, the foes will be familiar. Eight Wolverines are playing for their hometown team, and Fairbanks has four players who call the Golden Heart City home with another from Anchorage.
And while it is the first meeting for the Midwest Division squads, Alaska’s hockey circles are tight, and the players have all bumped into each other on one rink or another.
“We’re all excited for it,” said Alex Kulmanovsky, an Ice Dogs forward who grew up in Fairbanks. “It adds a little emphasis to the games.”
Also taking the adversarial relationship between the organizations up a notch is the disdain for “Los Anchorage” many Alaskans share with Kulmanovsky, who said, “I have a little hatred for Anchorage.”
First-year teams frequently stumble out of the gates. Not so, the Wolverines. They haven’t looked the least bit overwhelmed as coach Mike Aikens has steered them to a 12-5-1-0 record and third place in the division. They have the league’s leading goal-scorer in Talon Sigurdson (16 goals), and a goaltender in Raythan Robbins who is second in the NAHL in goals-against average (1.98) and third in save percentage (.929).
Fairbanks (13-7-0-1), a league stalwart for a quarter century and a three-time NAHL champion, comes to town with its own assortment of things to be thankful for as Thanksgiving approaches. Billy Renfrew (12 goals) and Alexander Molinowski (10) both rank in the top 10 for goals scored, and netminder Kayden Hargraves is among the NAHL leaders in goals-against average (2.32) and save percentage (.919).
Similarities abound, but one statistical difference jumps out: The Ice Dogs have the fewest penalty minutes (189) in the NAHL while the Wolverines are the second-most penalized team (394) in the league.
The Ice Dogs are tied for first place in the division. With a sweep, however, the Wolverines would jump over them in the standings and knock them off their perch.
Trevor Stewart, the longtime coach of the Ice Dogs, casts the soon-to-bloom rivalry in a positive light, alluding to it by noting it will create some “extra-friendly competition.”
Whoever wins, count on a boisterous full-house crowd — the Wolverines have sold out all seven home games. And the team has rewarded “The Rage,” as it refers to its fan base, by going 6-1 on home ice.
Said Stewart: “We expect The Boeke to be rocking.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article reported the Wolverines had sold out six of seven home games. All seven games were sold out, according to the team.