Fairbanks Ice Dogs general manager Rob Proffitt said it was surreal to have to tell the team’s players that the season for them and the North American Hockey League was over.
The Ice Dogs and the other 25 teams in the Tier II junior A league learned early Tuesday that the rest of the season was being canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It hit home for me then that it was the end of our 23rd season and how it would affect the players,” Proffitt said Tuesday afternoon during a media conference at the team’s office. The media conference was streamed live on the Fairbanks Ice Dogs page on Facebook.
“There were tears in their (players) eyes,” Proffitt said of the meeting with the players and coaching staff earlier Tuesday in the Ice Dogs locker room at the Big Dipper Ice Arena.
“There were 24 of them (players) sitting next to a person that they’re going to have as a friend for the rest of their lives
“It became clear to me, looking at this group, that we were on a journey and destined for the Robertson Cup championship. And unfortunately, due to circumstances (of the coronavirus), they’re not going to have a chance to do it.
“It was heart wrenching to say the least.”
Tim Erkkila, a first-year Ice Dogs defenseman, understood the reason for the remainder of the NAHL season ending.
The news of the cancellation, though, was still tough.
“Of course, you’ve got to look out for the well-being of the public, but it (cancellation) was devastating for sure,” Erkkila said by phone Tuesday night.
“We all thought we had what it took to make a run for it (Robertson Cup championship). We’re a tight-knit group and I think those bonds will last a lifetime.
“Part of our story is we didn’t get to make that run, so it’s going to be tough.”
The NAHL and its Board of Governors decided Monday to cancel the rest of the regular season because of the coronavirus. They met again in a teleconference Tuesday and decided to cancel the rest of the season, which eliminated the Robertson Cup playoffs and championship tournament, which was scheduled for May 7-12 at the Fogerty Arena in Blaine, Minnesota.
The Ice Dogs lost to the Central Division’s Aberdeen (South Dakota) Wings in last year’s Robertson Cup championship game at the Fogerty Arena.
Fairbanks was hoping this year to get a chance to add to the Robertson Cups it captured in 2011, 2014 and 2016.
Mark Frankenfeld, NAHL commissioner, said in a statement on the league’s website early Tuesday that the NAHL and its Board of Governors did “everything in our power to preserve a modified playoff and Robertson Cup Finals to ensure our players had every opportunity to compete for and win a Robertson Cup Championship.”
He added, “The latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendation of canceling all events of 50 more people during the next eight weeks made that reality impossible without dramatically disrupting the rest of our hockey calendar.
“There’s nothing good about any of this,” Proffitt said by phone late Tuesday morning.
“At the end of the day, I feel the worse for the players, the fans, the sponsors, volunteers, the billet families and everything that makes it happen.
“I feel the worse for the players because they’ve worked their tails off since the third week in August to put themselves in a spot to get to the playoffs and have a chance to hoist the (Robertson) Cup in May. That’s been taken away from them.”
Proffitt added, “We all need to take a step back and understand this pandemic is bigger than the game and bigger than hockey, and it’s bigger than all of this.
“Our No. 1 job, when the parents entrust us to send most of these players 4,000 miles away from home, is to look out for the safety of their young men.
“As tough it was (cancellation), that’s the ultimate goal we have here. With the global events that are happening, we couldn’t organizationally, and more important as a league, jeopardize the safety of players for the sake of business.”
The Ice Dogs, who before the season was canceled, were in first place in the Midwest Division at 39-11-1-2 for 79 points in the standings.
Fairbanks had eight games remaining in the regular season and it was scheduled to host a best-of-five semifinal series at the Big Dipper Ice Arena in April, when the playoffs were set to begin.
If the Ice Dogs had won in the semifinal round, they would have advanced to and had home-ice advantage for the Midwest Division championship series, also a best-of-five format.
The winners of the NAHL’s four division championship series — Midwest, East, South and Central — would have advanced to the Robertson Cup National Tournament, which was slated for May 8-12 at the Fogerty Arena in Blaine, Minnesota.
The Ice Dogs lost to the Central Division’s Aberdeen (South Dakota) Wings in last year’s championship game of the Robertson Cup tournament at the Fogerty Arena.
Frankenfeld, in the statement, also said the league’s teams will move forward with their scheduled tryout camps, “which is currently outside the CDC window.”
The Ice Dogs have three predraft camps scheduled, all in May.
The first one is May 15-17 at the Kensington Valley Ice House in Brighton, Michigan. The others are May 23-25 at the Dakotah Sports Center in Prior Lake, Minnesota, and May 29-31 at the City National Arena in Las Vegas.
Proffitt, during the phone interview, said he was also looking forward.
“We will all pull through this together and we will be back bigger and stronger next fall with the help of this great community that’s been here (for us) for 23 years,” he said. “We’ll be here again to start our 24th season.”
Contact News-Miner sports editor Danny Martin at 459-7586. Follow him on Twitter:@newsminersports.