Alaska-Fairbanks goalie Chad Johnson was taken in the fifth round (125th overall) by the Penguins in 2006. (Photo by Paul McCarthy)
While you’re reading this, chances are it’s dark in Fairbanks, Alaska. At this time of year, the arctic town sees a scant amount of sunlight, approximately four and a half hours worth per day. Having said that, it’s been a bright and shiny season for the local University of Alaska-Fairbanks Nanooks, who have already surpassed the number of wins they had all of last season.
Leading the charge is first-year coach Dallas Ferguson, an Alberta native who played for the Nanooks from 1992-96, then spent nearly his entire playing and coaching career in Alaska, save an 18-game stint with the ECHL’s Renegades in Richmond, Va. – the ‘polar’ opposite of Fairbanks, you might say.
And despite a lack of sunlight and an ungodly geographic disadvantage in the CCHA – the Nanooks’ closest conference rival is more than 3,000 miles away, roughly the same distance as Vancouver to Tampa – Alaska-Fairbanks is looking on the bright side this year.
“To me, it’s all about attitude,” Ferguson said. “We’ll take a red-eye flight out, then practice right away when we get in; the veterans lead the way teaching the young guys about sleep and getting enough fluids.”
Those trips also give the Nanooks a lot of time to bond. For example, this week, the team had five days off between a 3-1 win in East Lansing over Michigan State and a matchup with the top-rated Notre Dame Fighting Irish in Indiana Friday.
“I think that’s one advantage we have over other teams,” said star goaltender Chad Johnson of the bonding time. “Going to movies, going to lunch, hanging out at the hotel, joking around. We find things to do.”
And one of those things is figuring out how to keep opponents off the scoreboard. Thanks to Johnson’s conference-leading 1.62 goals-against average and .940 save percentage, the Nanooks are sitting third in the CCHA at 8-5-3-2, light years ahead of last year’s ninth-place, nine-win season. Johnson deflects some of the praise to Ferguson’s work behind the bench.
“Everything is so positive and he’s willing to teach us,” Johnson noted. “Friday we get some points, Saturday we get some points.”
But the coach, who points to his days as a Nanook player as a source of his pride in the team, also knows he has some good kids to work with.
“Before anything, you have to have work ethic and commitment,” Ferguson said. “To see a team that works as hard as they do has been one of the greatest pleasures for me.”
The team is also a point of pride for the fans of Fairbanks, who, with that lack of actual sunlight, find other ways to warm up newcomers such as Ferguson and Johnson (also from Alberta).
“It really has a small-town feel,” Ferguson said. “It has a kind of quaintness and for me, that’s how I grew up.”
Along with hockey, Alaska has also given Ferguson a chance to indulge his outdoorsman side, something he doesn’t have time for during the Nanooks’ season, but will get to in the summer. From salmon fishing to moose hunting, there are many activities the Fairbanks faithful share that simply can’t be done in an urban setting.
But if Alaska-Fairbanks wants to really make a statement to the rest of the nation, it will be on the ice, where the Nanooks are hoping to make noise in the post-season. With an upbeat attitude, it’s even easy to forget the sun goes down before 4 p.m. at home.
“You get used to it,” Johnson said. “But winning helps.”
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays and Wednesdays, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his features, The Hot List and Prep Watch appears Tuesdays and Thursdays.
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