Back to The Last Frontier: The history of UAH in Alaska

I first attended UAH hockey games in the 1990-91 season. I remember sitting in the Von Braun Civic Center Arena and watching the Chargers play Alaska-Fairbanks. I remember looking at the season schedule and thinking, “Wow, UAH sure plays teams from Alaska a lot.” This amazed me: The farthest south playing the farthest north, time and again.

Doug McDonald chases after a Nanook in Fairbanks.

Doug McDonald chases after a Nanook in Fairbanks.

At the time, I thought Alaska-Anchorage and Alaska-Fairbanks (which has since lobbed “-Fairbanks” off its short name) were UAH’s top rivals. During UAH’s first tenure in Division I, one might see why: From 1987-93, the Chargers played UAF 19 times and UAA 17 times, more than any other opponent in that period — and still more than any opponent not currently in the WCHA or that was in College Hockey America.

The Chargers visit the 49th state for the first time in 20 years when they face the Seawolves at the Sullivan Center in Anchorage. Game times Friday and Saturday are at 10 p.m. Central Time and can be seen on WCHA TV. Alaska-Anchorage visits Huntsville on January 17 and 18, and UAH goes to Fairbanks on January 31 and February 1 to battle the Alaska Nanooks.

Mike O'Connor (right) tumbles after colliding with UAA's Jim Mayes.

Mike O’Connor (right) tumbles after colliding with UAA’s Jim Mayes in Anchorage in Dec. 1991.

When you see UAH’s record against the Alaska schools, you might say “rivals” is a strong word. UAH is 8-27-1 all time against the Seawolves and Nanooks. And two of those wins were losses switched because they were later forfeited by Fairbanks.

Twenty-two of those 36 games were in Alaska, and the Seawolves and Nanooks thrived on their home-ice advantage.

“It was especially tough playing up there,” said Stu Vitue, who played center for the Chargers from 1989-93, making the trips north in all four years. “They had the only two Olympic-sized surfaces that we played on. That was a big advantage for them. All of our ice familiarity was messed up. I remember that our goalies had it pretty rough as all their angles were off. They also seemed to get a lot of help from the hometown refs. Not to mention that both of those teams were pretty good. UAA had some great players and made the NCAA tourney as an independent.”

Unfortunately, there has been a lot of this in Anchorage.

Unfortunately, UAH’s history in Anchorage has involved a lot of this.

Alaska-Anchorage made the NCAA Tournament three times as an independent (1990-92), and reached the quarterfinals in 1991. UAH is 2-15 all time against UAA, and 0-11 in Anchorage.

Alaska-Fairbanks didn’t make the tournament, but was no slouch either. Under Don Lucia, who has been the coach at Minnesota for the past 14 years, the Nanooks averaged 18 wins from 1987-93. The Chargers are 6-12-1 against UAF, and 3-7 in Fairbanks.

Kevin Caputo was a UAH defenseman from 1990-94, making five trips to Alaska in three seasons. “I guess the one bit of hockey memories that I have of the games up there was that they really packed in the fans to each of their games. Not only that but they were loud, especially in Anchorage. It was a great atmosphere to play in. They really love their hockey in Alaska.”

Complicating matters: UAH typically would visit both schools in one trip, making for a grueling – but bonding – experience for the Chargers. In 1987, 1989, 1990, and 1991, UAH would play two games in each city over a span of five or six days. Twice, the Chargers made a stopover for a game before actually going to Alaska: Wisconsin in 1989 and Minnesota in 1990. That’s five road games in a week.

Redoubt Volcano on Dec. 18, 1989 during a continuous eruption that delayed the Chargers getting out of Alaska. (W. White, U.S. Geological Survey)

Redoubt Volcano on Dec. 18, 1989, during a continuous eruption that delayed the Chargers getting out of Alaska. (W. White, U.S. Geological Survey)

And there was the volcano.

On December 14, 1989, Mount Redoubt, an active volcano about 110 miles southwest of Anchorage, erupted shortly after the Chargers arrived.

“One year a volcano went off, making it impossible to fly. We had to bus to Fairbanks from Anchorage, then we had to stay an extra day or two until the air cleared,” Vitue said. It’s about 360 miles between Anchorage and Fairbanks.

And then there was the weather.

“One year we were in Fairbanks and the weather was pretty bad and they were cancelling almost every departure,” Caputo said. “It was just before Christmas as well and most of the players were headed home for the break. Coach Ross was working the phones non-stop to try and find us a flight out. I think he even called the Alabama National Guard at one point to see if they could come and get us. Eventually we were able to get a flight out of Fairbanks.”

“One time a handful of us made the walk from the hotel to the arena. It was probably only a half mile away. However, it was -30 degrees. We all enjoyed the walk but needless to say it was cold.”

Jean-Marc Plante dives for the puck in Anchorage.

Jean-Marc Plante dives for the puck in Anchorage in December 1991.

The long trips were made after fall exams, so the players didn’t miss any class time.

“It was always tough playing in Alaska, especially when we made the trip just before Christmas,” Caputo said. “By that time everyone was ready to go home for the break and see their families.

“As far as the time that it took to get up there, we would typically fly in to Seattle and then into Anchorage. Total travel time was about 12 hours I think.”

Said Vitue: “Being from Seattle I would just hop off the team plane on the layover and be home for Christmas. The B.C. guys would also get off there.”

Lance West fires a shot against the Nanooks in Huntsville.

Lance West fires a shot against the Nanooks in Huntsville in January 1992.

At the end of the 1990-91, the Chargers made a second trip to Anchorage, this time for the NCAA Division I Independents Tournament with an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament bid on the line. UAH lost 5-0 to Alaska-Anchorage in the semifinal and 8-2 to Alaska-Fairbanks in the consolation game.

The 1992-93 season saw the Chargers do what a Lower-48 WCHA school will typically do every two years: Make two separate trips to Alaska — one to Anchorage and one to Fairbanks. This may be a concern with the new WCHA, but not uncharted territory for UAH.

Mark Hernandez skates with the puck against UAA in a game in Huntsville.

Mark Hernandez skates with the puck against UAA in a game in Huntsville in Nov. 1991.

“I don’t think it was that difficult for us to travel up there,” Caputo said. “If anything it was a great time for the players to spend some time together, get away from the routine of practicing, doing homework, etc. and bond as teammates.”

Vitue looks back on those trips as his most memorable as a Charger. His final game wearing a UAH sweater was the 1992-93 season finale in Anchorage, the last time the Chargers and Seawolves met.

“The trips were great for team bonding,” Vitue said. “Spending almost two weeks on the road was always something that I looked forward to. Those trips were tough, but I remember them more than any other ones I made while at UAH.”

Special thanks to Stu Vitue and Kevin Caputo for their perspectives, and to UAH Sports Information Coordinator Joey Daniels for searching the archives for the photos included in this article.

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