For a community that embraces its winter and all it has to over, the Fairbanks Ice Dogs’ outdoor game has become an instant classic.
Look no further than last Saturday, when over 2,000 fans braved the elements - temperatures reached a high of 18 degrees - to watch their hometown team take on Wenatchee on the field next to Big Dipper Arena, the Ice Dogs’ usual home.
And while the Fairbanks faithful weren’t able to toast a victory - the Ice Dogs fell to the Wild, 5-3 - the third annual game and all the surrounding excitement once again exceeded expectations.
“As much as we wanted to win the outdoor game, the festivities and the local community involvement is bigger than any outcome,” said Ice Dogs head coach Josh Hauge, who credits the efforts of Ice Dogs general manager Rob Proffitt for elevating the game’s entertainment quotient. “This was by far the highest-attended outdoor game we’ve had.”
Snow bleachers, a hot tub, heated beer garden with live entertainment, outdoor bowling and a chili feed highlighted the event. Proffitt points to the fan and the community support for making the spectacle a much-anticipated weekend on the Ice Dogs’ schedule.
“There’s just so much energy and excitement leading up to the weekend, and then to see everyone bundled up and taking in the entire atmosphere is really something special,” said Proffitt. “It’s one of those weekends where, when it’s over, I’m already looking forward to the next one and how we can make it bigger and even more fun.”
Regardless of the Ice Dogs’ performance last weekend - the Wild edged Fairbanks in a shootout on Friday, 2-1 - the team’s focus now is to be as its best come the Robertson Cup Playoffs, and while winning the West Division’s regular-season championship is a nice feather in the organization’s cap, it’s shooting for a whole lot more come April.
“As important as winning the West is, it’s only a piece of the puzzle in terms of helping us reach our ultimate goal of getting to the Robertson Cup (Championship Tournament),” said Hauge, whose team advanced to the Robertson Cup championship game a season ago before falling to Bismarck in the finale.
Playing in such a demanding division, though, Hauge respects the fact that there are no guarantees of his team coming out of the West and punching its ticket to Topeka, the site of this year’s Robertson Cup Championship Tournament.
“We’ve learned the past two seasons that winning the West doesn’t mean you’ll be playing for a national championship,” said the coach. “Two years ago (in 2008-09), we won the West, but Wenatchee played in the national title game and, last season, Wenatchee won the West but we played in the final.”
And while last year’s Ice Dogs were only one win shy from celebrating a Robertson Cup championship, Hauge likes the makeup of this year’s version and believes it has just as good of a chance - if not better - to make a legitimate run at Fairbanks’ first-ever Robertson Cup.
“The work ethic and character of this group is the best I’ve seen in my time here,” he said. “They’ve been a lot of fun to coach and it’s a special group. I really like this team’s chances and its ability to turn it up when the chips are down.”
Home-ice advantage throughout the West Division playoffs won’t hurt, either. Traditionally one of the most well-supported teams in the NAHL, Ice Dogs are averaging over 2,100 fans a game this season - fifth highest in the entire league.
“The fans have been great and we expect that they’ll be unreal in the playoffs,” said Hauge.
On the ice, the Ice Dogs are excited to get a few key players back in the lineup, namely forwards Alex Jensen and Alec Hajdukovich, both of whom were sidelined with injuries.
The team also welcomed the addition of forward Max Birkinbine, a standout in the high school ranks who recently wrapped up his season at the prestigious Minnesota state tournament as a member of White Bear Lake.
With spirits high and five games left on the regular-season docket - all at home starting with a two-game series this weekend against Kenai River - the Ice Dogs are focusing making sure all systems are a go come the postseason.
“At this point, we’re focused on tightening everything up,” said Hauge.
WEST DIVISION NOTEBOOK
ALASKA AVALANCHE: Alaska put together a 1-0-1 record against Fresno last weekend, including an 11-1 rout on Friday. Forward Eliot Grauer recorded a hat trick and an assist in the win, with forwards Ross Pavek, Brandon Brossoit, Derek Whitehill, Grant Dye and defenseman Chase Van Allen all fashioning three-point games. The Avalanche concludes its regular season in Fairbanks with a three-game series from March 24-26.
DAWSON CREEK RAGE: Having played only three games in March, the Rage were idle last weekend and also have this weekend off before wrapping up its first NAHL season in Kenai River for a three-game series from March 24-26.
FRESNO MONSTERS: Forward DJ Carnley connected for the game-winning goal in overtime as the Monsters bested Alaska on Saturday, 2-1. Forward Derek Sutliffe scored the other Monsters goal (shorthanded), and goaltender Tom Conlin turned aside 47 shots in regulation and overtime. With four game remaining in their inaugural season, the Monsters play a two-game series in Wenatchee on Friday and Saturday.
KENAI RIVER BROWN BEARS: With last weekend off, the Brown Bears travel to Fairbanks this weekend for a two-game series against the regular-season division champion Ice Dogs. Kenai River wraps up its regular season against Dawson Creek - a three-game series from March 24-26.
WENATCHEE WILD: Wenatchee put together a 3-1 record in Alaska last weekend, including a two-game sweep over Fairbanks. Forward DJ Vandercook (goal, three assists) and goaltender Brandon Jaeger (three wins) were named the West Division Player of the Week and NAHL Goaltender of the Week, respectively, for their efforts. The Wild heads to New Mexico for a two-game series on Tuesday and Wednesday before wrapping up its regular season at home with a two-game series against Fresno beginning on Friday.