In the 1980s, some hoped the new Sullivan Arena would draw the NHL to Anchorage. It didn’t work that way.
Part of a continuity weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. A question about the history of Anchorage or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
The newest National Hockey League team, the Seattle Kraken, will play their first regular season game on October 12. and outreach across the state. And with that nascent support in full swing, there is hope, realistic or not, that the Kraken can play an exhibition match in Anchorage. If that happens, it wouldn’t be the first time that NHL teams have played here. However, if the Kraken traveled north, hopefully their visit would be less doomed than their predecessors.
Anchorage’s first flirtation with the NHL took place in 1983. On September 27 and 28, 1983, the Vancouver Canucks and Winnipeg Jets played two preseason games at Sullivan Arena. It was a time when hopes for professional sports in Anchorage were soaring. The arena had just opened that year, and many believed it would allow the city to become a sufficiently vibrant hockey home. A month before the Canucks and Jets arrived, the US Olympic team played two sold-out games against the Soviet Wings, a Russian touring team.
The Canucks organization, in particular, eagerly awaited their presentation in Alaska. âWe would love to generate interest in Alaska,â said Canucks general manager Harry Neale. âIf we go up and play a few good games, people could support us. “
The Canucks were then the closest team to Alaska, a status now taken by the Kraken. However, the Jets likely made more local fans when they drafted two former Anchorage stars that summer. Neither Harry Armstrong, formerly of West High, nor Kory Wright, formerly of East High, reached the NHL, although Wright returned to play several seasons with the Anchorage Aces in the 1990s.
The Canucks had just had a disappointing season, but were in the Stanley Cup Finals in 1982. Notable players on the team included all-star goaltender Richard Brodeur and future Hall of Fame member Cam Neely.
The Jets who played in Anchorage are not the franchise of the name today. In 1996, these Jets moved and became the Phoenix Coyotes, now the Arizona Coyotes. Notable players on the team in 1983 included Morris Lukowich and future Hall of Fame member Dale Hawerchuk.
At that time, NHL preseason games typically attracted a minimum of 4,000 to 5,000 paid participants. Expectations were probably higher in Anchorage. But when the first game started, there were only 2,448 fans in an arena that has over 6,000 in its hockey setup. It was a debacle. Hawerchuk had pulled off a hat trick, but everyone’s attention was riveted on the wide bands of empty seats. More locals showed up for a playoff game between Dimond and Bartlett High Schools earlier that year. “It doesn’t look good,” Jets general manager John Ferguson said before the game.
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The Jets completed the sweep the following night in front of even fewer fans, 2319 participants. The highlight of the evening was not a match moment but two local fans, Hillary Weireter and Mark Przybylski, who engaged in a shootout between periods for tickets to Hawaii. Both contestants landed their first 60-foot shot through a narrow hole before missing their next three attempts. Rather than forcing them to continue, the sponsors awarded them two tickets each.
As for disappointing attendance, some locals blamed the ticket price of $ 20, roughly $ 54 in 2021 dollars. Ben Hilberg of Alpine-Burtco Leisure Services, who ran the arena, noted that each team was paid ” about $ 25,000 “per game, about $ 68,000 after adjusting for inflation. He noted, âWe can’t do that sort of thing again next year. No promoter would touch (a professional hockey game) at this point. Not after that.
Shortly before the first game, Neale said: âIt’s hard to get people to participate in something that they haven’t seen before. If we give them a good game, it will be more crowded … next year. His optimism was commendable, but the Canucks did not return the following year. In fact, it took the NHL 18 years to revisit Anchorage, a journey marred by a very different context.
Meanwhile, there was another plan in play to bring the NHL to Anchorage on a more regular basis. The Pittsburgh Penguins were looking for a new training camp base after getting tired of their longtime preseason home in Johnstown, Pa. Penguins general manager Ed Johnston said, âWe were looking to change our Johnstown training camp, and we’ve heard a lot of good things about the facility (Sullivan Arena) there, so we have started to think about it. “
The team was at a low point in its history. They finished with the worst NHL record for the 1982-1983 season and struggled financially. The move to Anchorage meant better exposure potential opponents, including the Edmonton Oilers at the start of their dynasty led by Wayne Gretzky. Team officials have demanded a $ 25,000 guarantee for every Anchorage game, the same one given to the Canucks and Jets for their shorter stays in town.
Sullivan Arena sold-out sales for Soviet Wings games tempted the Penguins’ leadership, but they delayed signing any deals until after the Jets-Canucks shows. The disaster of attendance at these games essentially ended the negotiations. Thus, Anchorage hockey fans did not see Mario Lemieux, first choice in the 1984 draft and future Hall of Fame member, at the start of his illustrious career.
In 2001, the St. Louis Blues and San Jose Sharks agreed to play a two-game series at Sullivan Arena on September 15-16. The Blues arrived the previous weekend; the Sharks were not due to arrive until the 14th. The Blues’ first local appearance was a free practice open to the public scheduled for the morning of September 11th.
Following the September 11 attacks, the Blues quickly canceled training. The NHL has also canceled upcoming preseason games. Nationwide travel restrictions have kept the Blues in Anchorage and the Sharks in the Lower 48.
The Blues got back to work the next day with a public scrum. For many staff, players and fans, it was a welcome return to normal. St. Louis General Manager Larry Pleau said, âWe all have prayers for the victims and the families of the victims. But everyone has to go on and show these people that they can’t hurt us. Blues star Keith Tkachuk told the Daily News: âI don’t think it’s going to be normal again. It definitely changed our lives. You want to forget it, but you can’t.
Dallas Blues winger Drake said, âYou couldn’t get away from (the news). It’s good to get away from it, get away from it all and play. A local fan in attendance said: âItâs really good to come here and focus on something else for a few hours.
Although the weekend’s fights with the Sharks were called off, the Blues played an intra-team scrum at the Sullivan on Saturday 15. Host Jim Sonnier praised the Blues’ organization for their generosity and flexibility this week. -the. âFor Larry Pleau to make the decision to stay and play an intra-team game, it’s amazing,â said Sonnier. âHe could have taken his team, called in a charter (flight) and gone home.
The possibility of a Kraken exhibit aside, the opportunities for high performance professional sports in Alaska are largely gone. Long-range fandoms are easier than ever, especially in a graft-riddled state and given the different streaming options.
As Daily News sports reporter Ron Somers wrote in 1983, “If any of us were really addicted to professional sports, we probably wouldn’t be living in Alaska.” He added: âI came home from an Oriole game one night and picked up my wife just because Dennis Martinez threw a hit and lost. It was then that I knew it was time to flee to Alaska. No, maybe we don’t need professional sports here.
âAlaska Sports Digestâ. Anchorage Daily News, September 14, 2001, C2.
Booth, Tim. âKraken is out: Seattle’s new NHL team opens the preseason with a win and the chance to play as far as Alaska. Anchorage Daily News, September 27, 2021, adn.com/sports/national-sports/2021/09/27/kraken-released-seattles-new-nhl-team-opens-the-preseason-with-a-win-and -the-possibility-of-games-too-far-in-alaska /.
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