The University of Alaska Fairbanks Department of Athletics hosted its first ever Hockey Night School with the ’Nooks on Wednesday at the Carlson Center. It provided participants, including myself, with an opportunity to learn more about the sport from this season’s team and coaching staff.
The event prefaced UAF’s Western Collegiate Hockey Association series against Lake Superior State this weekend at the Carlson Center, where the Nanooks will highlight girls and women in hockey.
Today’s series opener, which falls on National Hockey Mom Day, will honor current and former hockey moms. Saturday’s game will celebrate girls currently in youth hockey and local women who advanced to the NCAA level.
Although the event was open to everyone, when former collegiate hockey players and current UAF athletics staff members Nona Letuligasenoa and Lisa Laiti first pitched the event, they wanted to create an opportunity for women to learn more about hockey.
“We know people in town who date former hockey players ... but they get dragged to games and don’t know anything about what’s going on on the ice,” Letuligasenoa said.
The description reminded me of some of my college friends during football season at Stanford. I’d often have to beg to leave a tailgate and actually have someone accompany me into the stadium. More than once, I was abandoned in the fourth quarter to watch a game-winning drive alone.
“We were also trying to target first-generation hockey parents who don’t know how to dress their kids yet or why certain coaches do something,” Letuligasenoa added about Hockey Night School.
But Letuligasenoa and Laiti still wanted to make sure even an expert could walk away from the event having learned more.
As a sports reporter who moved to Alaska from California six months ago, whose only prior experience with hockey consisted of watching the Stanley Cup Finals each year, I felt like the perfect candidate for the event.
(Although I was recently reminded that growing up California is not an excuse for not watching hockey, as there are three NHL franchises in the state … Noted.)
I’ve learned a lot from the first half of the hockey season and feel I know the sport well enough to cover it for my job. But I still consider myself far from an expert. And the more games I watch, the more questions I have.
So when I was given the opportunity to cover Night School with the Nooks’ for my job, I didn’t hesitate.
As I walked through the Carlson Center doors on Wednesday, I was welcomed by a group of five Nanooks hockey players. And as I entered Pioneer Room, I was greeted by the rest of the team, UAF athletics staff and a handful of other early arrivers.
The first 20 minutes were dedicated to a “cocktail hour” to get to know the team. Naturally, as the 23-year-old I am, my social anxiety was at a high as I walked alone into a group of people and players I didn’t know. But I jumped in and didn’t struggle for long.
I joined a conversation with Roberts Kalkis, a freshman defenseman from Latvia, and UAF women’s basketball head coach Kerri Nakamoto. Nakamoto and I rattled off questions:
• What’s youth hockey in Latvia like?
He said youth opportunities are more limited than in the U.S.
• Where was your favorite place you’ve traveled so far with the team?
Marquette, Michigan for the Northern Michigan series (on Nov. 15 and 16), he said.
• And are ice skates always so uncomfortable?
If you get the rentals from the rink, definitely, Kalkis said.
Cocktail hour concluded when UAF hockey head coach Erik Largen summoned the group, which had grown to 65 participants, for a hockey overview. The highlight of the presentation was senior left wing Tyler Cline and junior center Max Newton’s live off-ice demonstration of cross-checking, hooking and slashing penalties.
When the overview ended, the room divided into five groups for the breakout sessions — faceoffs and breakouts, special teams, stick taping, locker-room etiquette, hockey gear, stickhandling and shooting.
My favorite station was the on-ice stickhandling and shooting. I was a little nervous my Converse shoes wouldn’t fare well on the ice, but fortunately I stayed upright.
Two of my three shots missed the net entirely, but freshman goaltender Emils Gransoe kindly got out of the way so my third shot could slide just inside the right pipe. That went down as a victory in my book.
But the real winner of the station was UAF men’s basketball head coach Greg Sparling. After getting a few practice shots against Gransoe, who was actually defending, Sparling found the net when he ripped a puck high glove side.
To Gransoe’s credit, Sparling did say before the shot, he was attempting to aim high stick side.
I was inspired by Gransoe’s success and wanted to attempt to actually make the puck leave the ice so I took a couple more shots. None made it off the ice or in the net. I decided to blame my lack of success on the stick, which I learned in the stick taping session was always an appropriate excuse.
The evening concluded with a question-and-answer session with Largen and five players.
Some attendees asked more personal questions, including how they started playing hockey.
For senior goaltender Anton Martinsson, his older brother had a lot to do with it.
“He needed someone to shoot on and I ended up in the back of the net,” Martinsson said.
Other questions were more tactical. I had been wondering for a while if teams are more casual in committing penalties when playing against opponents with terrible power plays.
So I asked. And the answer was no.
But what pleased me almost as much as finally getting the answer to a question I had wondered for almost over a month, was senior forward Kyle Marino noting it was a good question.
As a reporter, being told you’ve asked a good question is a high compliment.
I left the Carlson Center on Wednesday knowing more about hockey, and with a mental list of new questions. I also took a moment to reflect on how much I’ve learned since June.
Maybe one day instead of watching the Stanley Cup Finals on my couch in California, I’ll be able to cover them myself.
Let’s just hope shooting a puck into an empty net isn’t a requirement.
Contact News-Miner sports writer Laura Stickells at 459-7530. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMsports.