MARSHALL, Minn. — It all seemed so normal inside Red Baron Arena, on the (constantly) wind-swept prairie outside this southwestern Minnesota regional hub. Hockey players were on the ice, going hard to the net, working up a sweat, finishing checks and perfecting shootout moves in an effort to impress the coach, who watched from above, making notes on a laptop in anticipation of a few coming roster reductions.
Only the snarling Alaskan husky on the front of their practice jerseys looked out of place.
Welcome to junior hockey in 2020, and to the temporary home of the North American Hockey League’s Fairbanks Ice Dogs, who have set up shop almost exactly 3,000 miles from their normal base of operations and are the newest short-term residents of the State of Hockey.
Some look at Marshall and see the hub of pheasant hunting country, or the home of Schwan’s foods, or a college town, with Southwest Minnesota State University’s campus just across the highway from the arena. For the Ice Dogs, Marshall is a place of refuge, while they wait out one of the many storms caused by the coronavirus pandemic, and long for a return to “normal” life in their Alaska home.
Summer of searching
Summers are notoriously short in the interior of the Last Frontier. But for the Ice Dogs, the summer of ‘20 seemed to last forever, in some respects.
“In April, we started to figure out we needed to do something different, and then plans were finalized by the end of June,” said Ice Dogs coach Trevor Stewart, a Minnesota native who has led the team to a pair of NAHL titles since taking over behind the bench in 2011. “It’s been a long summer of waiting and figuring out how we’re going to do this, but we’re thrilled to be able to pull it off so far and have a season.”
That was in doubt not too long ago. The Canadian border is closed to almost all overland travel, meaning the only practical way to reach Alaska is by air. The state, in an effort to limit the spread of the virus, requires proof of a negative Covid-19 test before you can leave the airport in Fairbanks, Anchorage or wherever you land. For sports teams, the requirements are even more stringent, and not cheap, with each test costing $250 per person.
Through an arrangement with the NAHL, the Ice Dogs foot the bill for travel expenses when teams come to Fairbanks. General manager Rob Proffitt did the math, and realized that an additional $13,000 for every home game, to administer two coronavirus tests to every player and coach that came to town, would be a budget-buster.
“I think a lot of businessmen would’ve just shut the door facing the situation we were in,” said Proffitt, who has been with the Ice Dogs since Day 1, in 1997. “You shouldn’t make decisions with your heart, but I believe I did and hopefully I have the head to back it up.”
The NAHL offered a “pause” option, allowing teams to take the season off. Four NAHL teams opted to do so. That was not an appealing idea to Proffitt, who considered having to spend the winter recruiting players for a team that was on hiatus, and then having to start over with a de facto expansion team for 2021-22.
And thus, the search for a temporary new home began. Proffitt needed not just an arena, he needed places for 30 players and staff to live for the winter. It was a tall order. He had made contact with seven or eight rinks in the Twin Cities and western Wisconsin with little headway. Then he got a message from Marshall.
“I just sent off a random email, and everything started happening,” said Cassi Weiss, who coaches Marshall’s girls high school team and works for the local convention and visitors bureau.
Western Minnesota welcome
Mason Plante, who is from Marshall, played for the Ice Dogs in Fairbanks last season. His family knew that the team was looking for a temporary home. They got word to Weiss, who reached out to the Ice Dogs. She offered their arena, and needed roughly two weeks to find places for all of the players, coaches and staff to live. Flash forward to a Monday evening in mid-October, when an Alaska Airlines plane with 50 hockey bags full of gear and everything else needed to run a team was being unloaded at MSP and all of it was loaded into a trailer, bound for the western Minnesota prairie.
It will be below zero in Fairbanks over the weekend. By comparison, winters below the Arctic Circle are much milder, even if it doesn’t look that way in Minnesota with the October snow.
“Everyone one of them (in Marshall) said, ‘just don’t bring your weather,’” Proffitt joked. “Sure enough, driving over here we got to about Chaska and it started snowing, and it didn’t quit for two days.”
Winter precipitation notwithstanding, to say this community of roughly 13,000 is excited about the new team in town does not do it proper justice. On Proffitt’s first day in Marshall, he was stopped by locals nearly everywhere he went, tipped off by the Ice Dogs logo on his jacket, to chat about the team.
This week the Ice Dogs opened the arena doors for up to 200 fans for an intrasquad scrimmage, and hit maximum capacity with just word-of-mouth publicity. In a normal season, players would be appearing in the schools and helping youth hockey teams on the ice. Sadly for Marshall, not much of that will happen this winter, with players undergoing daily health checks and temperature scans.
“The experience off the ice won’t be tremendous,” Proffitt admitted. “That’s a bummer, because I’d like to integrate them more with the Marshall community. But it will be: rink, workout, home, and that will be it for the time being.”
He also stressed the temporary nature of the move. The University of Alaska Anchorage recently announced it will drop its Division I hockey program, and Alaska’s two NAHL teams playing elsewhere this winter. Similar to the Ice Dogs’ arrangement, the Kenai River Brown Bears will operate from and play their games in Breezy Point, Minn., for the time being. So in these dark days for hockey in Alaska, Proffitt assured fans in Fairbanks that these Dogs have not run away for good.
“I was very transparent with the Marshall people that this is our temporary home. It’s a life line. And we are going to get back to Fairbanks,” Proffitt said. “Every sponsor in Fairbanks renewed, and told us, “Do whatever you can to survive. We don’t just want you back next year, we want you back for the next 25 years.’”
Family, near and far
Proffitt has a son playing college hockey at the University of Wisconsin-Superior and may get to see more of him this winter. Stewart said there may be a chance to reconnect with extended family in the Twin Cities, but admitted that FaceTime calls with his wife and young children back in Alaska will likely get challenging.
For Ice Dogs from the "Lower 48," there will be more chances for their families to travel (by car) and see them play this winter. After a season in Fairbanks playing with the Ice Dogs, and committing to play college hockey there for the University of Alaska, Plante finds himself back home with his parents, still playing for his NAHL team, but in his high school and youth hockey home rink.
“It hasn’t quite hit me yet. All the fans here are insane. I’ve coached a lot of the kids here, so the fan support has been great,” Plante said, after a recent Ice Dogs practice in Marshall. He finds himself being called upon to be the local area guide. “I get text messages from guys every day wondering what food is good and where we can hang out. The guys all love it here and feel blessed to play. I can’t thank the city enough for allowing us to be able to come play like this.”
Unlike the northern half of the state and the metro area, hockey in southwestern Minnesota wasn’t much of a “thing” 50 years ago, but the game has grown quickly thanks in part to facilities like the one in Marshall, and the on-ice success of some teams from the region. Weiss said Southwest Minnesota State is talking of adding club hockey, and the Ice Dogs’ arrival, albeit temporarily, is another boost.
“Everyone is really excited about them being here. It hasn’t been the best of times, so it gives our community something to look forward to and a boost in business, which is huge,” she said. “It’s not just them coming here to play hockey, they’re coming here to help in any way they can in the community, and also play hockey.”
For the Ice Dogs, there is constant amazement that folks in Marshall are saying thank you for coming to the community, when they feel nothing but gratitude.
“They’re thanking us, and I don’t think I can express to them that for us this is a lifeline. It’s a snorkel to keep above the waves right now,” Proffitt said. “Their community spirit is so uplifting, it’s incredible. This will be our 24th season. I thought it was going to be game over, and we’d never be able to recover. This gives us a chance.”
The Ice Dogs open their season on Nov. 5 with a road game against the Janesville Jets. Their home opener will be Nov. 27 against the Aberdeen Wings.