Jake Hale embraced his former Minnesota Magician teammates. Andrew Garby and Evan Junker hugged each other with tears flowing down their faces. Head coach Trevor Stewart looked as though he was holding a lump in his throat himself. Every player on the Fairbanks Ice Dogs seemed to hold one another for a time without dry eyes as they looked around the Big Dipper Ice Arena Sunday night.
Some of them were doing so for the last time this season. Others were doing so for the last time ever as members of the Ice Dogs.
That was the scene following a 3-2 loss to the Magicians in game three of the NAHL playoff opening round series. With that, the Dogs were eliminated from postseason play after being swept 3-0 by their division rivals.
There’s no doubting the effort was better in game three than the first two performances. Even with a significantly lighter crowd than Friday and Saturday, the Dogs refused to go out without a fight. Even after falling behind 3-0 in Sunday’s game, Fairbanks fought to the last possession. Stewart never expected anything less from this group.
“It meant a lot (that the kids kept fighting),” he said. “We were in such a bad situation being down 3-0. To be able to claw our way back to make it 3-2…that summed up our whole year. We kept working, we kept getting thrown curve balls and we kept fighting, scratching, and clawing. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out in the end for us.”
The effort was admirable all the same. After falling behind 3-0, Mason Plante scored a power play goal 10:57 into the second period on an assist from Jasper Lester and Brendan Murphy to get the Dogs on the board. Ty Naaykens scored at the 5:21 mark of the third period on an assist from Jack Ring and Scott McKenzie to cut the deficit to one and Fairbanks had opportunities to tie the game up. In the end, they just ran out of time.
Still, the adversity this team fought through this year can’t be discounted. They found out just a week before the start of training camp that their would-be captain Luke Ciolli was diagnosed with brain cancer. They were forced to play most of the season in Marshall, Minnesota due to Covid-19. They were in fourth place with two weeks left in the season and fought their way back to finish in second. All of that alone is worth celebrating and general manager Rob Proffitt was grateful for all the support the team received throughout.
“I just want to thank the whole Fairbanks community,” he said. “From Mayor (Bryce) Ward to Steve Taylor from the Dipper here. Ice Dog Nation, our sponsors, fans that came out and supported us when we got back here in Fairbanks in April. (This season was) an unbelievable roller coaster of a ride and I’m just so thankful to the community that we call home for embracing us during that time we were away. I want to express my sincere gratitude.”
Garby will be heading to Army next year while Jasper Lester heads to Air Force. Mason Plante, Bret Link, and Nicholas Ostbloom will stay in Fairbanks, but will play for UAF. Ty Naaykens (St. Lawrence University), and Owen Neuharth (Colgate University) will also head for college. However, this year’s team also featured a great deal of young players who will be back with a year of experience under their belt this winter. Players like Jack Ring, Brendan Murphy, Jacob Conrad, Austin Becker, and Fairbanks locals Billy Renfrew and Ryan Keyes will return.
“I think we’ll be extremely competitive right out of the gate,” said Stewart. “There was a lot of seasoning that had to happen early on this season and we expect the guys that will be returning to know exactly what we’ll need and how we need to play and we’ll win some games early unlike this year.”
So while this is goodbye for some, it’s just see you later for many others. The next time you see them, be excited for a whole lot of winning.
Contact sports reporter Hart Pisani at 459-7530 or follow him at twitter.com/FDNMSports.