If “Slap Shot” met “Field of Dreams” and they had a love child, it would be the new hockey documentary “Alaska Gold Kings.”
The film makes its Anchorage debut before the Alaska Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremony Sept. 10 at the Captain Cook Hotel. The 71-minute film captures a time, team and place in unprecedented fashion.
It chronicles the Gold Kings, who embodied the spirit of Fairbanks as it became a city in an Alaska still learning to skate as the 49th state. The team is one of the hall’s 2022 inductees, which also includes players Pam Dreyer, Brian Swanson, Kerry Weiland and Kord Cernich.
Doors to the hotel’s Discovery Ballroom Fore Deck open at 1:30 p.m., and the screening begins at 2 p.m. with the ceremony set for 4 p.m. in the Aft and Mid Decks. Admission is free and on a first-come, first-served basis.
Hockey historian Randy Zarnke, a retired Fish and Game biologist who moved to Fairbanks in 1978, is the conceptual visionary, along with Eric Cline, and the film’s executive director.
“I just really was a big fan of that team,” Zarnke said.
Footage of the Gold Kings from the 1970s, ’80s and ‘90s is interspersed with interviews that put the team’s significance in context.
Highlights of the documentary include 1920s footage of people playing hockey on the Chena River in Fairbanks and an explanation as to how a World War II-era airplane hangar in Tanacross became the Big Dipper Ice Arena, which is still used today by the Fairbanks Ice Dogs. It also provides insight into how the team became a destination for top-notch players from the Lower 48.
The Teamsters union was the club’s original sponsor, and its business agent, Gary Atwood, was such a hockey enthusiast he offered jobs to players as an incentive to play for the team.
“There was nothing subtle about it,” Zarnke says. “A lot of these guys were coming from places down in the states, where if they could find a job, were working for $5 an hour. He could put them on the pipeline making $25-30 an hour. That was a major recruiting tool.”
Of course, primarily, the documentary is about the Gold Kings’ success on the ice and their remarkable rise to prominence.
In the 1970s, the Gold Kings’ greatest adversary was the original Anchorage Wolverines.
“Like any rivalry, it was bitter,” Zarnke said, noting, “The way I remember it, the first 12 or 13 times that the two teams played, the Wolverines won,” and that those early losses served as motivation for the Gold Kings.
After the breakup of the Wolverines in the late ‘70s, the Gold Kings looked elsewhere for sparring partners and began playing more elite senior men’s teams from Canada and the Lower 48. But the willingness of those squads to travel north was limited, so games against national teams from overseas began to appear on the schedule. The Big Dipper became a destination for international teams enticed by the high-level competition the Gold Kings offered, the arena’s ardent fan base and the lure of visiting Alaska.
The pinnacle of those clashes with foreign foes in Fairbanks featured in the film is a 1986 series with a Soviet Union team.
The international contests led the Gold Kings to playing in Europe against the Norwegian national team before the 1992 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. Another road trip pitted them against the French leading up to the 1994 Winter Games in Albertville, France.
Additionally in the 1990s, the Gold Kings were playing professionally in the West Coast Hockey League against the Anchorage Aces, which created another rivalry.
It was old-time hockey at its finest.
“There was a combination of hatred and respect,” Zarnke said.
When the team wasn’t at the Big Dipper, overseas or playing in the WCHL, it was winning senior men’s national championships in St. Louis (1983), Sun Valley, Idaho (1988), Seattle (1990), Stanford, Connecticut (1992), and Fresno, California (1995).
Along with Zarnke, the primary player in the creation of the documentary is another longtime local, Gareth O’Neil.
The producer and director, O’Neil had the ideal background for the project. He grew up in North Pole, where he played goalie, and then moved back to Fairbanks after working in California for 20 years in the film industry.
The two were introduced by a mutual friend, and their collaboration is symbolic of what Zarnke says is central to the movie’s theme.
“The primary message is the connection between the team and the community — to the benefit of both.”
When “Alaska Gold Kings” premiered in Fairbanks, Zarnke said those in attendance got the message.
A former player’s wife talked to him afterward and alluded to the team being a part of the fabric of Fairbanks: The players were more than members of the team, they were the people you lived with, the guy who put your two-by-fours in your truck at the lumber yard or topped off your tank at the filling station.
For Billy Renfrew, who is from Fairbanks and played junior hockey for the Fairbanks Ice Dogs of the North American Hockey League last season, the movie really hit home as well.
“I talked to him a few days later, and as soon as he saw me, he got this big smile on his face, and he came over and he said, ‘Boy, that was really, really great’ ” Zarnke said.
“He said, ‘I’m 20 years old, I’ve heard my dad and my grandpa talk about the Gold Kings, Gold Kings, Gold Kings. but (the Gold Kings) were gone before I was born. And so all I’ve heard is little bits and pieces that I’ve heard from my dad and grandpa.’ ”
“So that was pretty cool,” Zarnke said.
O’Neil echoed that sentiment in a text last week: “In testimony to how much this Gold Kings thing means to people, not one person asked to work, appear or bend over backward to help even hesitated to say yes.”
After the premier, the following individuals, along with the Gold Kings team, will be inducted into the Alaska Hockey Hall of Fame:
• Cernich, who went to Service High in the early 1980s, won a national championship in college at Lake Superior State and played seven seasons for the Anchorage Aces.
• Dryer, the first Alaskan to skate for a U.S. Olympic hockey team, went to Chugiak High, was a standout goaltender at Brown University and was a goalie on the U.S. women’s team that won a bronze medal at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy.
• Swanson, a Hobey Baker Award finalist at Colorado College who played professionally in the NHL, Germany and the East Coast Hockey League for the Alaska Aces.
• Weiland, who was a defenseman for the U.S. women’s team at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and played pro in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.