FAIRBANKS - When long-term Fairbanks hockey fans are asked to name the best … the biggest … the most important … hockey game ever played in Fairbanks, almost without exception, they mention one match-up. This is the story of that game.
The Alaska Gold Kings
(a senior men’s amateur team) formed in the mid-1970s, at a time when the only other organized hockey in Fairbanks was of the youth variety. In the early years of the Gold Kings, the team was spirited, but less than polished. As the quality of the team increased, the quality of the opposition was upgraded, as well.
In 1986, an opportunity arose for the Gold Kings to host a national team from Russia. At the time, the Soviet Union dominated the amateur hockey world. Four of the visiting skaters had played on victorious Soviet teams during either the Olympics or the World Championships. The two-game series was slated for Jan. 2 and 3, 1987 at the Big Dipper arena. Fairbanks hockey fans were abuzz.
After a stand-out career as a Gold King player, Chuck Cartier was coaching the local squad, “That was my first (and only) year behind the bench for the Gold Kings. We had been having a great season, and were accustomed to winning. We were nervous coming into this series. This was a ‘big stage’ for us,” he recalled.
“The language barrier prevented us from talking with the Russian players, but we communicated with hand gestures and facial expressions. They didn’t have any money, so they were selling Russian watches to raise a little cash,” defenseman John Haddad added with a laugh. “The watch I bought stopped working three days later,” Haddad added with a hearty laugh.
Friday night reality check
The Friday night game wasn’t much of a contest. The foreigners seemed to mesmerize the Gold King skaters. The final score was 5-0 in favor of the visitors.
Cartier admited being somewhat overwhelmed by the Russian onslaught. “In a game against a new opponent, a coach tries to make notes regarding which of your players match up best against their players. On Friday night, my notebook didn’t make any sense. It was all scribbles. In addition, the Russians used a strategy that we hadn’t played against before. We made them look better than they were. The only good thing about Friday was that we learned their offense. That allowed us to adjust for Saturday.”
Haddad described the Russians’ equipment, which he said was, “old and ratty. The palms of their gloves were rotted out. Their skates were several years old. They had their shin guards taped on with baggage tape from Alaska Airlines. Obviously, their performance did not match their appearance.”
Defenseman Joey Behling described the Russians’ technique and strategy: “They shot low and hard across the face of the net, hoping for deflections and rebounds.”
Goal-tender Billy Duquette elaborated: “They were very accurate shooters and passers. Every pass was ‘tape to tape.’ Every shot was for a purpose. They never took a shot just to get the puck to the net. There was never any time for me to relax.”
“We emphasized that our forwards had to come back harder when the Russians had the puck. The locker room before Saturday’s game was confident. We had a plan and we were determined to implement that plan. If we could limit their scoring chances, we knew that we could do better than Friday night,” Cartier said of Saturday game adjustments.
“We were determined to play better positional hockey,” Haddad added. “We were planning to play more physical, but those guys were strong on their skates. It was pretty rare to actually knock one of their players to the ice. We considered it an effective check if we just slowed them down.”
The importance of the hometown fans was also a factor.
“I don’t ever remember more people in the Dipper than we had that night. They really helped us a lot,” said center Chris Cahill.
In the Sunday News-Miner, the Russian coach seemed to agree: “Everyone on both teams was playing for the fans,” he said.
a bad start
The Saturday contest started much the same as the Friday game. The visitors went ahead 2-0 midway through the opening period. Rick Trupp scored for the home team to make it 2-1 at the end of the first. Cahill and Timmy Lee scored in the second to put the Gold Kings ahead 3-2. Bob Eley reported in the Sunday News-Miner that “ … the joint went absolutely nuts” following Lee’s goal. The second period ended with the Gold Kings still ahead by one.
But, in gaining an maintaining the lead, Cartier noticed the his players were fatigued.
“In most big games, the players on the bench are all standing. They’re so excited they don’t want to miss a second of the action. That wasn’t the case on Saturday. Our guys were so tired when they came to the bench, they just collapsed. They didn’t stand back up until it was their turn to go back on the ice. When we went into the locker room between periods, I could tell that the boys were ‘cooked.’ I looked at Billy (Duquette) and said, ‘It’s up to you.’ He just begged, ‘Keep ‘em to the outside.’”
Before the start of the third period, a few of the Gold Kings skated past and addressed referee Clay Wallace by his nickname, “Wally … we’re gonna win this thing.” Wallace responded with a simple nod or thumbs up. “I was convinced that the Russians would come back and win it, but there was a different attitude on the Gold Kings that night. Players realized that the team goals were more important than their personal goals. Everyone sacrificed for the good of the team. It was great to witness and it was an honor to be part of that game.”
Third, and final, period
Steve Murphy extended the lead to two goals for the home team early in the final period. Cartier clearly recalled a change on the Russian bench after that fourth goal. “They started to panic. They didn’t want to lose. Whenever there was a line change, the Russian coaches were chewing out players as they came off the ice. They weren’t adjusting to our defensive changes. We decided to tighten our defense further.”
Cahill observed another change on the Russians’ bench. “They had three forwards standing behind the bench during the first two periods. I don’t think that they ever got out on the ice. They were the top forward line. That line played most of the third period. Fortunately, by the time that they put those guys on the ice, we were already on a roll.”
With the Gold Kings ahead, the Russians changed their strategy. “At first, it was just a normal hard-fought game. When we went ahead, they played a LOT rougher,” recalled defenseman Behling.
Inevitably, the Russians mounted a comeback. They scored one goal in the middle of the third and then another with 75 ticks left on the clock. The score remained tied at 4 until the game ended.
Duquette made 47 saves on that fateful night. Eley described most of them as “simply spectacular” in the Sunday News-MIner. Cahill used one of Duqette’s nicknames to pay homage to the goalie: “The ‘Dancing Bear’ really danced that night.’
Cartier said the Fairbanks goals were not the result of finesse and picture-perfect passing, but the result of a barrage of shots.
“There weren’t any really ‘pretty’ goals in that game,” he said.
Cahill begged to differ: “I still remember every goal. That was the most fun I ever had playing hockey.”
Duquette recalled that the fans wanted more. “After the horn sounded, they started chanting ‘Overtime … overtime.’ There’s NO WAY we wanted that!! We were so tired, we could hardly stand up. We wouldn’t have scored again if we had played for two more days.”
Cartier remembered Gold King players throwing sticks to the crowd after the game, “We had a tight budget. We couldn’t waste money like that, but everyone knew this had been a special game. One of the first guys I ran into in the locker room was Joey [Behling]. His face had this look of admiration for the Russians and satisfaction at what we had accomplished.”
Duquette agreed, “All of our guys played well, but Behling played the game of his life.” The goalie also complimented his coach: “Chuck has always been a student of the game. He did a good job with our team that year. This game was his best performance ever.”
Haddad explained one motivating factor: “We had a lot of pride and talent on our team. We didn’t want to be humiliated a second time. We simply out-worked them on Saturday. Obviously, Billy played an outstanding game. In the locker room afterward, I said to him, ‘We just tied the Russians!’ Billy was exhausted. He took a long hit from his beer, looked at me and said, ‘No, John … they tied us!!’
“Before the first game, we didn’t really know what we were getting into,” he added. “The intensity level was as high as it gets. Sitting in the locker room after the second game, it started to sink in. Looking back on it now, it was a very memorable experience. We all enjoyed testing ourselves against a better team. This was the ultimate challenge for us.”
Wallace admitted he didn’t think Gold Kings could compete. “Prior to the game, I figured that it would be a slaughter. Boy, was I wrong. The Gold Kings played great, and the fans were really supportive.”
The Gold Kings started out as a rag-tag outfit. With hard work by many and tremendous support from the community, the program grew into a national powerhouse at the amateur level. Still … the Russians were the best in the world during the 1980s. There was no reason to believe that a small Alaska town could stand up to that international force. On that one magical night, the “Hockey Gods” smiled on the Golden Heart City. The Russians had to battle back to gain a tie against the Gold Kings. It was the greatest hockey game ever played in Fairbanks.
Just ask anyone who was lucky enough to be there.
Randy Zarnke is president of the Fairbanks Hockey Hall of Fame.