IT WAS NOVEMBER of 1952 when I arrived in Anchorage, an 11 year old kid from northern Minnesota. In the small town where I grew up, we all played hockey in the winter—on icy streets, on frozen ponds and sometimes, when we were lucky, at an actual indoor ice arena. Saturday mornings at the rink were a real treat for us because an older man, with the patience of a saint, worked with a bunch of us, trying to teach us to actually play hockey. In Anchorage it was a different story.
THE ONLY ICE RINK I knew of in Anchorage in the early 50s was on the Park Strip between D Street and E Street. A couple kids I met asked me if I knew how to skate, which I thought was a stupid question, being from northern Minnesota. So I said, “Sure, but my skates are still being shipped.” They said, “No problem, you can borrow a pair of ours.” Well, they turned out to be figure skates, which where I came from only girls wore. I went ahead and put them on and as soon as I hit the ice the toe picks dug in and I landed on my face. My new found friends looked down at me as I was lying there and said, “Thought you said you could skate?” None of the kids I met even cared about hockey. When I took my hockey skates, stick and puck down to the ice rink, I’d find everyone skating in circles, spinning, jumping and doing “girl stuff.” If I wanted to practice hockey, I had to find a sheet of ice off to the side and skate by myself. I soon tired of playing alone and drifted away from skating altogether. I didn’t find out until much later that there actually were quite a few people in town who played hockey.
IN 1956, WHEN I WAS A SOPHOMORE at Anchorage High School (now West High School), a new P.E. teacher, Earl Walker, decided to start a hockey team. When he asked me if I knew how to play I said, “Sure,” but I soon found out that after five years I had forgotten almost everything I knew about playing hockey. I dug my skates and hockey stick out of storage and showed up for the first practice eager to play, but first Coach Walker and I needed to shovel the snow off a small patch of ice the maintenance staff put in before Christmas break. Then, since I was the only one to show up, we played one on one for a while. Eventually, Coach Walker got enough kids rounded up to form a team, and made arrangements to practice at the Park Strip rink which had lights and real boards. As the season wore on things started coming back to me, and by the end of the year, at the annual awards banquet, I was named the most improved player. My real claim to fame, however, is that to the best of my knowledge, I was the very first high school hockey player in Anchorage.
BESIDES OUR TEAM, there were only two others in Alaska at that time: Kenai and Ninilchik. Our first game was in Kenai on a rink where the boards were only about 6 inches high, which really changes the game. It was more like playing pond hockey because we had to keep the puck on the ice or it would go off into the crowd. On one play, the puck got flipped up into the air and hit a little girl in the face. The game was stopped until everyone knew she was okay. Even though one of our players scored 5 or 6 goals, we still lost 9 to 12. Sounds more like a football score.
NEXT WE WENT TO NINILCHIK where we were happy to discover they had a real outdoor hockey rink with boards, lines and everything. The people were great. They welcomed us with a meet and greet, fed us a potluck dinner, and put us up in cabins for the night. The next day we arrived at the rink ready to play, but there were some equipment problems. We had borrowed our football team’s shoulder pads, which probably looked pretty imposing (and goofy), and the Ninilchik players had no pads at all.
THE COACHES AGREED that there wouldn’t be any body checking which none of the players liked, even the Ninilchik players. We wanted to take our pads off and play the game right, but the coaches won out. There was still plenty of contact. I got run into the boards at least once. This was back in the day when “real” hockey players skated around the ice with their hair blowing in the breeze like men, but because of school rules, we had to wear “sissy helmets.” So we would wear them on the bench, but when the coach called our line we would pull off our helmets as we jumped over the boards. The coach soon threatened to bench the whole bunch of us, so we quit doing that. We ended up winning 3 to 2, but regardless of the score it was a memorable and really fun game.
OUR NEXT GAMES were scheduled in Anchorage, again with Kenai and Ninilchik. We only made it halfway through the game against Ninilchik, though, because of an unexpected warm spell. The sun radiating off the boards at the north end of the rink was warm enough to melt the ice behind the net, baring the concrete below. In the second period three of us chased the puck to the net. Everyone else stopped, but I kept on going. I tiptoed through the puddle and came out the other side with the puck, but I didn’t even make it to the blue line before the referee stopped the game. That was the end of our season—cancelled because of weather.
OVER THE NEXT FEW YEARS, new high schools were built in Anchorage and hockey really took off as a sport in the area. Unfortunately for me, because of a severe hunting injury, I was only able to play hockey that first season. About ten years later, when I was attending Alaska Methodist University (now Alaska Pacific University), some of the students started a hockey team. They found out I had played in high school and asked me to join them, but the hunting injury I had sustained still kept me from being able to skate. If things had been different, I could have played on the first college hockey team in Anchorage, as well as the first high school team.
Story by Bill Beatty