Mike Aikens helped build the Rochester Grizzlies into a North American 3 Hockey League national championship contender in three years.
Now he’ll try to do the same thing at the next level of junior hockey.
Aikens, a 1989 Rochester John Marshall graduate who has spent the past three seasons as an assistant coach coach with the Grizzlies, was named the head coach of the expansion Anchorage Wolverines of the North American Hockey League on Wednesday.
“Everything,” second-year Grizzlies head coach Chris Ratzloff said when asked what he’ll miss most about having Aikens on the team’s staff. “First of all, I’m excited for him. He’s been wanting to get back to college hockey for awhile and this is a step he’ll need to do to get there.”
When Ratzloff was hired two years ago to replace Casey Mignone — the Grizzlies’ first head coach, who moved on to an assistant coaching position with St. Cloud in the NAHL — one of the first calls he made before accepting the job was to Aikens.
“I called him before I made the decision and asked him to stay on,” said Ratzloff, who played youth hockey, high school hockey and junior hockey in Rochester with Aikens. “We’ve known each other since we were 10 or 11 years old. We grew up together. His dad (Bert) coached us.
“I knew that being new to junior hockey, I needed him and his experience. I’ll miss his hockey knowledge. His connections are great and his friendship is great.”
The Wolverines’ announcement came just 24 hours before the Grizzlies (38-6-1) play their first-ever game in the Fraser Cup, the NA3HL’s national championship tournament. Rochester faces the Texas Brahmas at 7 p.m. tonight in St. Peters, Missouri, just outside of St. Louis, in the opening day of round-robin play.
Aikens said the job offer came somewhat out of the blue and his family -- his wife, Hope, and teenage daughters Maren and Brianna, were 100 percent supportive of the decision. Aikens, who signed a three-year contract with Anchorage, will live there during the season and during off-season tryout and development camps.
“The ownership group is really good, they want to do things the right way,” Aikens said. “There are certainly challenges of building a new franchise from the ground up. As far as the hockey side of it, I expect to be competitive in Year 1; I don’t want to go up there and get embarrassed.
“We’d love to be better than competitive, but that’s a tall order going into a very good league with good coaches and players who are established.”
Anchorage will join the NAHL -- the same league in which the Austin Bruins play -- for the 2021-22 season. They’ll be the third NAHL team in Alaska, joining the Fairbanks Ice Dogs and the Kenai River Brown Bears.
The Wolverines will play in the NAHL’s Midwest Division with Fairbanks, Kenai River, the Richfield-based Minnesota Magicians and two Wisconsin teams, the Chippewa Steel and the Janesville Jets. Anchorage has already signed seven players to tender agreements for its inaugural season.
“For me to jump back in it had to be the right situation,” Aikens said. “Ownership has to be really strong, the facilities, and just being able to do things right and give yourselves a chance to have success.”
Wolverines director of hockey operations Keith Morris has already signed seven players to tender agreements for next season, including four Anchorage natives. Aikens said Alaska and Minnesota will be strong recruiting grounds for the team, which will play close to half of its games within a few hours of the Twin Cities.
“Coaching, you deal with the same issues no matter what level you’re at,” Aikens said. “For me personally, having to be really detailed in your teaching and being specific on things is something I’ll be able to take to the next level and help me a little bit.
“... I’ve been out of the USHL/NAHL game for eight years, but I’d say I may potentially be a better coach than when I left that part of the game, because of my experiences here.”
Ratzloff said the Grizzlies will most miss Aikens’ eye for talent, and his attention to the little details that have made the franchise into an NA3HL power in a short time.
“He’s really good at identifying talent and critiquing players,” Ratzloff said. “He’s good at telling players ‘this is what we like about you and these are the things you need to work on.’ He knows what guys need to do if they want to take the next step in their playing careers.
“We’ll miss him. We can’t replace him, there’s no way we can.”