By McKibben Jackinsky
With the End of the Road Shootout behind them, the Mariner Co-Op Hockey Team, comprised of high school athletes from Homer, Flex, Kachemak Selo and Voznesenka, heads north for three days of play:
“We’re definitely going up there and trying to play our hardest, put it all out there. We’re going to have to. It’s valley teams,” said Dawson Roberts, a Homer High junior who plays defense. “We’re going to have to take our ‘A’ game.”
Dawson began playing hockey 12 years ago, after his family moved to Homer.
“My parents ran into Kevin Bell. He talked my parents into (letting me play) and I’ve kept on going,” said Roberts, who enjoys the game’s speed and intensity.
Bell was a strong proponent of the sport in Homer before his death 2008. His perseverance helped fuel construction of Homer’s indoor ice rink, which is named in his honor.
During the Shootout, the Homer team, as well as its fans, had an opportunity to see three very different types of hockey action. Bartlett, with barely enough players to make a team, put up a strong defense before losing to Homer, 6-1.
“They’re a really good team, but just didn’t have the numbers. They ran out of energy,” said Clem Tillion, a senior and forward who began playing hockey about 10 years ago.
Houston brought a very physical game to the ice. In spite of it, the Mariners scored a 3-1 victory over the Hawks.
“That’s the game for you,” JJ Sonnen, a senior defenseman who has been playing hockey since he was 4 years old, said of the physicality of Houston’s game. “You’ve just got to keep your head up and fight through it. You’ve got to have the mindset that you’ve got to make the play.”
The Shootout’s final game pitted the Mariners against the Soldotna Stars, with Soldotna winning 3-1.
“It’s all in how they’re coached,” said Tillion of the difference between the teams.
This is the second year John Carlin has coached the Mariners. He began playing hockey as a youngster growing up in Edina, Minn., and played college hockey in the late 1980s. After moving to Alaska in 1993, Carlin played on an adult men’s league, assisted the Soldotna High School team for a year and was the Stars’ coach in the 1990s and early 2000s.
“(Carlin) always tries to make us do better. It’s fun to play for him,” said senior Anton Kuzmin of Flex High School.
Watching his two older brothers play hockey is what inspired Kuzmin to get involved in the sport. His enthusiasm was fueled by encouragement from Bell.
Roberts also had praise for Carlin.
“He’s an awesome coach,” said Roberts. “He knows what to say, when to say it and how to get the team fired up. He also gives really good advice to players. He knows what he’s talking about.”
This year’s Mariner hockey team is a combination of upperclassmen that have played the sport together for years and an infusion of freshmen.
“I really like the leadership we have this year, our seniors, the upperclassmen in general,” said Sonnen. “And this group of freshmen coming up are good and willing to work hard. They’re willing to make that important connection with teammates. I’ve noticed that a lot. … They show up, work hard and do what the coach asks and that’s all you can ask of them. That’s great.”
This year’s team roster of 26 includes two girls who play forward, senior Maggie LaRue and freshman McKenzie Hill. LaRue also plays volleyball and softball, but enjoys the quick pace, contact and time on the ice that hockey offers.
“It’s tough because the boys are a lot bigger and a lot faster, but it’s not really that different,” said LaRue, who has been playing hockey for 10 years and, like many of her teammates, was encouraged in the sport by Bell.
Fundraising is critical in the Mariner hockey experience. One avenue for helping pay for travel, equipment and ice time is the sale of Christmas wreaths, which the team members sold earlier this year. The wreaths recently arrived and will be delivered in time for the holiday season.
“Skates can cost from $500 to $1,000. Then helmets are $300 and a nice stick is $250,” said LaRue.
According to Jan Rumble, secretary for the Homer Hockey Association and on the HHA financial task force, the fee for ice time at the HHA-owned Kevin Bell Arena is about $300 an hour.
“That’s pretty standard from around the state,” said Rumble.
However, there are some financial struggles facing HHA that could impact user fees. HHA currently operates on an annual budget of about $350,000. In September 2015, it will begin paying the principal on the note for the rink, which will increase monthly expenses $8,000-$9,000 and, as a result, would require a raise in user fees.
“The programs would be so expensive that we won’t be able to have teams,” said Rumble.
Total owed on the rink and land is $2.74 million and HHA is exploring avenues to pay off the debt.
“We’re hoping to work some kind of refinance where we can get some money from the Legislature to pay off the debt,” said Tracy Tillion of the HHA finance committee. “If we were able to pay off the debt, we’d be able to lower a lot of our fees and hopefully get even more people involved at the rink and using the facility.”
In January, HHA plans to launch an online fundraising effort with a $60,000 goal, “which will get us through the next year,” said Rumble. “Our main emphasis is just trying to get money to save the rink.”
For Roberts, who spends five to seven hours a week on the ice with his teammates, “the rink is super important. Even just by having games down here, having our tournament, that brings in a lot of money.”
Sonnen began playing hockey before the arena was built, on an outdoor rink behind Homer Middle School.
“This rink definitely means a lot. It allows us to grow hockey-wise because it’s here and always available,” said Sonnen. Thinking of the rink’s namesake, he added, “What the Kevin Bell Arena stands for makes it special. (Bell) got you out there, suited up, got you out on the ice, for sure.”
While the HHA pursues avenues for keeping the rink operating, the Mariner Co-op Hockey Team heads into a weekend of action against the valley teams.
“They’re going to be tough games, but we can definitely hang with them,” said LaRue. “It will be a good assessment of where we’re at and we’ll build from there.”
On Tuesday, the Mariners are back at the Kevin Bell Arena for a game against the Kenai Kardinals, beginning at 7 p.m. Even with their focus on the on-ice action, their ears will pick up cheers from the hometown fans.
“I want to thank the community for their support,” said Sonnen. “Friends, family, people you don’t know just showing up. It definitely makes it a lot more special.”
McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
On the mend
During the Mariner’s season-opening game against Soldotna, freshman Charlie Menke sustained injuries that required hospitalization and have kept him out of play since.
“He is doing better, but he still needs everyone’s positive thoughts for his body to heal,” said Mariner Head Coach John Carlin. “He is on the mend in Anchorage and hoping to come home soon.”
Senior Owen Delehanty also has been out of play due to health concerns, freshman McKenzie Hill sustained a knee injury and freshman Adam Brinster suffered a concussion.
“All have been very present at practices and games and all are excited to get back to skating at full speed, when their bodies, doctors, parents and school nurse all deem it appropriate,” said Carlin.