On the schedule, it was just another NAHL regular season game. However, to the Fresno Monsters, the Fairbanks Ice Dogs and the Fairbanks, Alaska community, it was so much more. Sunny skies and 11-degree weather greeted 1,692 fans for the Fairbanks Ice Dogs’ fourth annual Outdoor Classic hockey game held this past Saturday afternoon outside the Big Ice Dipper Arena.
This year’s Outdoor Classic fell on St. Patrick’s Day and marked the first time that the event was played in the afternoon. Ice Dogs general manager Rob Proffitt was pleased with the change. “It was St. Patrick’s Day, so moving the game time up allowed the fans to have the evening to celebrate any way they wanted,” Proffitt said. “I think it was a neat experience playing with the sun out. It definitely was a factor, but I think playing the game during the day allowed a lot more families to be a part of this experience, which we were pleased with,” he added.
The Monsters defeated the Ice Dogs, 2-1. The Ice Dogs won the first two Outdoor Classics against the Kenai River Brown Bears and Alaska Avalanche, but have lost the last two including last year’s game to the Wenatchee Wild.
“I think playing four different opponents in four years was cool,” remarked Proffitt. “It was a great experience for all the players, especially the Fresno players this year and that’s what it is all about. Yes, we would have liked to have won, but sometimes we have to remember we are in the player business. This was an experience for them to remember while playing in the NAHL and that’s what we are about. It is something they will talk about and remember for the rest of their lives.”
Fresno Monsters forward Zack Wallace, who is from sunny Burbank, California got hooked on the Outdoor Classic in his first experience to the event on a rink adjacent to the Big Dipper. The game was played for four 15-minute quarters so fans and players could warm-up inside on a more frequent basis. The surroundings outside of the rink included bleachers made of snow and a hot tub that was occupied by different sets of fans for each quarter.
“It was a blast, I had a great time out there,” Wallace said. “I wish we could do it every year.”
The Outdoor Classic was more fun for Wallace after he scored the game-winning goal at 10:16 into the first quarter. Wallace collected Dominic Valencia’s crossing pass on a rush and popped it between the pads of Ice Dogs goaltender Steve Perry. The Ice Dogs increased their pace and constantly pressured Monsters goaltender Tomas Sholl after falling behind 2-0 in the first period. Filip Winkler also scored the Classic’s first goal at 8:36 of the opening quarter. Fairbanks got a goal late in the final stanza from Max Birkinbine, but it would not be enough for the win.
“Fresno is a hungry team. They needed to get points to get into the playoffs and they played really tough,” said Ice Dogs head coach Trevor Stewart, alluding to the Monsters trying to stay ahead of the Kenai River Brown Bears for the fourth and final playoff spot in the West Division. “As the game went along, we understood that we’re going to have to play one of best games in order to get back into it,” Stewart continued. “We started getting back into it at the end, but it was too little too late.”
Despite the 2-1 loss, Proffitt said the game was another resounding success. “The Outdoor Classic celebrates the great history of the game in Fairbanks. We have a wonderful history of youth, junior and professional hockey here and this game is a tribute to that. It also celebrates it on a National level with what the NHL has done with their outdoor games,” said Proffitt.
As for what he has in store for next season’s fifth anniversary of the Outdoor Classic, Proffitt says it is getting hard to top what they have been doing, but they look to improve the event with each passing season. “There are limitations on space at the outdoor rink so we are running out of space to do much more,” said Proffitt. “We bring in bleachers, hot tubs, a garden and tents for food and beverage, so we are really trying to enhance the experience for the fans. We just want everyone to have fun and have it be an event that brings everyone together in the spirit of hockey, so we will keep trying to make the game and experience better each year.”
Special thanks to Danny Martin and the News-Miner for portions of this story.