By Alex Kyrias, NAHL
On May 9, 2010, the Fairbanks Ice Dogs stood stunned on the ice of the Town Toyota Center in Wenatchee, Washington, as they had been defeated in the 2010 Robertson Cup National Championship game by the Bismarck Bobcats, 3-0. After falling one win short of completing the ultimate prize, Fairbanks had two choices, fight or flight. So, it was with that loss in mind the team began to fight for another opportunity at the NAHL’s Holy Grail.
If the regular season last year was any indication, the Ice Dogs meant business. The team racked up a franchise-record 40 wins, including a stretch in the middle of the season where they won a remarkable 24 of 27 games. The Ice Dogs would win the Western Division crown, 12 points clear of 2nd place Wenatchee. After a sweep of Kenai River, the Ice Dogs would take two of the first three games from Wenatchee in the West Finals on home ice in Fairbanks. The final two games of the series would be in Wenatchee, the same place of that haunting memory almost a season ago. Fate and good fortune intervened in overtime in Game #4 as John Stampohar’s shot from the high slot found the back of the net and sent Fairbanks to the Robertson Cup Tournament. All in that split second, not only did it give Fairbanks the West Division Playoff title, but it would ignite a fuse that rocketed the Ice Dogs straight through the Robertson Cup Tournament on their way to their first National Championship.
As former head coach and current General Manager Rob Proffitt paced atop of Landon Arena during the final seconds of Fairbanks 4-2 win over the Michigan Warriors in the National title game this past May, a hundred of questions must have entered his mind. How did this team that had been through so much in a year, including seeing its team captain Matt Millis get sidelined with cancer, manage to go undefeated in four games at the tournament and win the title? What would the reaction be from the passionate fanbase in Fairbanks when they got home? And perhaps the biggest question of all, how would life change now that the Ice Dogs were finally National Champions?
“It was the culmination of a lot of hard work and dedication of a lot of people. It was a pretty emotional week for all of us starting with the awards banquet and the recognition of our organization and the courage of our captain,” said Proffitt. “In celebrating, I started to think of all the players, coaches, staff, fans who made this possible and it was very overwhelming. We felt like we won for the community, which made it extra special for all of us. The win was bigger than just the Fairbanks Ice Dogs.”
It is well known that Proffitt enjoys his summers in the Alaskan wilderness, and after finally winning the title, he was all set for some much deserved time off. But, Proffitt’s summer tasks changed immediately when head coach Josh Hauge announced he had accepted a new job, so quickly the focus turned to finding a new head coach. Enter Trevor Stewart, who had been the assistant coach for the St. Louis Bandits. “It is always something as a general manager you want to be prepared for,” said Proffitt. “Josh is such a talented and highly-regarded coach. In thinking of who we wanted to succeed him, Trevor was at the top of the list. We were excited he was in our league and familiar with it, and we are all about advancing and providing opportunity to those coaches within the NAHL who have proven themselves.”
Now that task at hand for Stewart and Proffitt is defending a National Championship, one of the toughest things to do in sports. “It’s not a new formula because we want to surround ourselves with the right kind of players,” said Proffitt. “The guys know now there will be a target on them every game, but we have the veterans who have been through it and can respond.” One of the biggest needs is a goaltender. With playoff veteran Joe Phillippi headed to NCAA Division I St. Cloud State this fall, the Ice Dogs will turn to Alex Fons. Most recently Fons, 19, had been the third goalie this past spring at the University of Minnesota. Earlier in the 2010-11 season, he had appeared in five games for the Alexandria Blizzard.
Up front Fairbanks returns Tayler Munson, who at just 18 years old, already has two years under his belt in the NAHL and who had 48 points last season. JT Osborn, who was second in NAHL goal- scoring last season with 37 goals, also returns as does Gabe Levin, who had 58 points last season. With the offense solidified and a nice compliment of veteran players returning to the line-up, the Ice Dogs should have another great opportunity to defend their National Championship come May in Texas.
Next up in the NAHL’s 28 teams in 28 days series, the Fresno Monsters.