FAIRBANKS — I don’t want to hear it. If I have to
listen to another person on campus complain about the cold weather
again this year, I’ll just go nuts.
Students in Ann Arbor were complaining last month about the
highs being in the single digits. I’ll admit it. I was one of
those people … until I stepped outside of Fairbanks International
Airport late Thursday night. It was a balmy 22 degrees below
Don’t get me wrong — I had a great time covering the
Michigan hockey team up in the “Golden Heart City”
— but the weather is what defined this trip, as well as this
community. With only about 40,000 people, there’s not much to
do on weekends besides play and watch hockey.
The Carlson Center, home of the Alaska-Fairbanks Nanooks,
isn’t on campus and doesn’t provide a college rink
atmosphere like Yost. It’s actually more than that — it
had the atmosphere of a community supporting its team, with
everyone in town coming out to cheer on the Nanooks.
I was disappointed, though, that the game didn’t have a
college feel to it. Alaska-Fairbanks did have a band, but it only
played the school’s fight song after goals and the end of the
period, which made it feel like a game at Joe Louis Arena. The band
even played “Hit the Road, Jack” for Michigan
penalties. Between faceoffs, the band was silent, and the crowd was
forced to listen to now-dull arena songs like “Cotton Eye
Joe” and “Hip Hop Hooray.” Player introductions
came right from the NHL All-Star Game, with strobe lights and
spotlights on the players being introduced.
The breakdown on the crowd goes like this: The students and the
band occupy about one half of the lower-level seating, and all the
other seats were occupied by die-hard townspeople.
Don’t think for a minute that this makes it an easier
venue to play in — I think it actually made it tougher.
Imagine if all the alumni and casual fans at the Big House —
heck, even Yost — cheered with the same enthusiasm as the
students. It would be the toughest venue in the country. Every
person in the arena gets behind the cheering, whether it be doing
the wave or screaming “U-A-F! Nanooks!” from opposite
sides of the rink. The sound was so deafening, earplugs were
available for $1 at concession stands.
Even off the ice, Michigan wasn’t safe from the crowd
— a fan poured a Coke on goalie Al Montoya as he entered the
dressing room Friday night.
But the most impressive aspect of the Alaska-Fairbanks hockey
program was its openness with the community. Most arenas in the
CCHA don’t have formal press conferences — typically
reporters talk to players and coaches on a one-on-one basis. The
Carlson Center not only had a press conference, but it was open to
anyone in attendance at that night’s game — anyone
could ask Guy Gadowsky and several players questions. Immediately
after the game, there had to be at least 750 people crammed into
the room, and even after 20 minutes of (mostly) intelligent
questions, there still remained about 150 committed fans.
But would you believe the coolest part of my weekend
wasn’t the hockey games? I wouldn’t have believed it
either before I started the trip. But I attended a classic Alaskan
sporting event — dog mushing. Earlier in the trip I made the
mistake of calling it “dog sledding,” which is a no-no
in Fairbanks. Good thing I went to the dog mushing museum in town
the day before I saw the race. I watched the start of the Junior
Yukon Quest, which features maybe the most dedicated 14- to 17-year
olds in the world competing in a 120-mile trip with their teams of
I asked a woman standing next to me if the weather stop the
race. It was 17 degrees bellow zero at 10 a.m. “You’re
not from around here, are you?” was her reply. Gee, what gave
it away — me being the only person with a scarf over my face,
my “M” ski cap or my lack of heavy-duty snow boots? She
explained to this outsider that the weather was “ideal for
the dogs,” but not for the people. No argument here. For
having just 14 mushers compete, there was a large crowd of about
250 people to see the kids off.
The people of Fairbanks realize their situation, living in a
small town just south of the Arctic Circle, brings the community
closer together. Where else could you have total strangers cheering
on kids competing in a dog mushing event on a frozen riverbed at 10
in the morning? I’ve never been anywhere where more people
said “Hello” to me on the street than there. It seems
impossible that such a friendly community would turn so vicious at
a hockey game. I guess that’s what makes average Michigan
students into profanity-spewing maniacs on weekends as well.
If you want to see me become a maniac, just mention how cold you