At first glance, this weekend’s visitors to Yost Ice Arena seem to come from a different seed.
While Michigan normally has road trips that consist of two-hour bus rides, Alaska-Fairbanks normally takes two long plane flights in addition to a four-hour bus ride.
While Michigan boasts an 11-time national champion football team, Alaksa-Fairbanks boasts a back-to-back-to-back-to-back national champion rifle team.
But the Alaska-Fairbanks hockey program – which Michigan will play in its CCHA opening series this weekend – likes to think it’s not much different from any other school in the league.
While it may not make sense to have a school from Alaska in a league that consists mostly of schools in the Midwest, the Nanooks have settled into the CCHA pretty well since they became a full member of the league in 1996.
“It’s doesn’t sound very practical to have a team like Alaska-Fairbanks in your league, but they’ve given us plane tickets and they pay for part of our hotel,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “It’s just about as cheap for us as it is to go to Lake Superior or Ohio State.”
Alaska-Fairbanks has had a varsity hockey program since the 1920s and it joined the NCAA in 1980. The Nanooks came in along with Alaska-Anchorage, as independents with scheduling nightmares.
But no conference wanted to add both Alaska-Fairbanks and Alaska-Anchorage. So to help salvage two programs that had invested greatly in college hockey, the WCHA took in Anchorage and the CCHA took in Fairbanks.
“It means that you have programs like Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State come up here,” Alaska-Fairbanks coach Guy Gadowski said. “And the hockey fans here just eat that up.”
What the CCHA got was a school, a town and a state that is mad for hockey. College hockey is the top dog in Fairbanks as capacity crowds always fill Fairbanks’ Carlson Center. When the Nanooks started their 2002-03 season in an exhibition against Mt. Royal College, over 4,000 fans showed up – equivalent to 1/8th of the non-student population of Fairbanks. The mayor of Fairbanks and the governor of the state even know the Nanooks on a first-name basis.
“It’s such a hockey town,” Gadowski said. “Our fans are very knowledgeable that really appreciate the finer points of hockey as well. They’re not just there to see goals and hits. They’re talking about your forecheck and your penalty kill and things like that.”
But with the notoriety does come long road trips. When the Nanooks have a Friday-Saturday road series, they have to leave before eight in the morning on Wednesday. They fly from Fairbanks to Anchorage to Detroit before busing to where they are playing. They then spend Thursday practicing, adjusting to the four or five-hour time change, and attending study tables to make up for lost class time. This is all before they hit the ice on Friday night.
“They have a lot of demands on their time,” Gadowski said. “But the travel is sometimes a great time to get caught up in studies and rest, and it actually works out really well.” Having the Nanooks in the conference also gives the teams of the league achieve to go to Alaska and bond as a team. Berenson has always enjoyed breaking away from normal routines and traveling up north early in the season. This is the first year the Wolverines have not gone to Alaska since 1995.
Anchorage native Jason Ryznar enjoyed going back to his home state last year even though he got a little grief from his teammates about his home state.
“People were saying ‘How can you live here? How can you be from this state?'” Ryznar said. “A couple kids called me a native.
“It brings the whole team together, I wish I was going back this year.”
But playing the Nanooks at home or on the road is far from a vacation. Fairbanks was just one game away from the NCAA tournament last season, compiling a 22-12-3 record, a national ranking and a split with the Wolverines at Yost. With the fans in Fairbanks going crazy, the Nanooks want to perform.
“One of the enviable situations of Michigan is their tradition of winning,” Gadowski said. “And now – although it’s very, very, short – we have some sort of tradition of winning. It makes it much more exciting.”