On-ice ability only one part of representing Alaska

There’s no question that 12-year-old hockey athletes Clark Bolin and Ethan Pitzman know a thing or two about hockey. Bolin has been playing since he was four; Pitzman since he was five. It took more than on-ice know-how to land a spot on an AK Selects hockey team, however, and represent the state, as well as their hometown.

“When I started the program last spring, it was designed to reach out to different organizations through Alaska and put together a competitive team that could compete at the national level of teams in the Lower 48,” said Dave Ruiz of Anchorage.

“We base our selection on a few things: individual talent, work ethic, what coaches think about the player and overall character. … We’re pretty selective in our process.”

The program was developed for 9- to 13-year olds. There are two teams with players from Anchorage, Eagle River, Fairbanks, Wasilla, Soldotna and Homer.

After hearing about Bolin from a player already selected, Ruiz watched some games to see the Homer player in action on ice and interacting with other top players from around the state.

“He fit right in,” said Ruiz, who then heard about Ethan Pitzman.

“I don’t want to say no to anybody, so I let him try out, did a little homework on him and he did really well in his league. I saw him, the coaches liked him, I liked him. He’s a Homer kid playing at the C level and here he was playing with kids at the triple A level. How can you not take these kids?” 

In May, Bolin and Pitzman were part of the AK Selects teams that played in the Stars and Strips Tournament in Bloomington, Minn. They played at the Los Angeles Jr. Kings Tournament in California on May 23-26.

Playing for AK Selects involves weekend practice in Anchorage, so the two athletes make weekly trips north. 

“His going to Anchorage is a little bit more exposure to competition and it gives Homer more exposure, too. That was one of the big things when we went up there. People would say, ‘Wow, kids from Homer are good,’” said Bolin’s mother, Kellie.  

Playing on the team also has been an opportunity to play with, rather than against, other athletes from around the state.

“There’s kids from Anchorage, kids from Palmer, kids from Fairbanks that play against each other all year. Then, all of a sudden, they’re all on a team together,” said Kellie Bolin, also acknowledging the impact of the coaches’ positive attitude. “They are real understanding role models for the kids.”

The opportunity to play hockey out of state also has proven a good learning experience and a challenging one.

“To see kids at the next level and know what they need to work on, that’s kind of why (Ruiz) did this,” she said of the AK Selects team. “They told us beforehand that it was going to be tough.”

Shortly after construction of the Homer ice rink in 2005, Pitzman’s mother, Stephanie, ran into Kevin Bell in the grocery store. Bell, who died in 2008, was known for his commitment to the sport; the rink is named in his honor. Bell encouraged her to consider letting her son learn the sport. She ran the idea past Pitzman’s father, Ian, a commercial fisherman who was on the Bering Sea at the time.

“It’s delightful to skate in and of itself, but you throw a puck and a stick into the game and what’s not to like? He loved it,” said Ian Pitzman of his son’s interest in hockey.

When Ian Pitzman heard about the AK Selects team, he gave Ruiz a call and asked if his son could tryout. 

“It’s the first time Ethan has had to try out for anything. It was a good experience, and he made the cut,” said Ian Pitzman.

“He’s playing at a higher level of competition, skating with kids from other states, getting the experience of traveling with a team and wearing a jersey that says ‘Alaska’ instead of ‘Homer,’ which is kind of cool.”

Originally from Chicago, Ill., Ruiz said before moving to Alaska he was told not to get his hopes up when it came to hockey in Alaska, that the players were “really not that great.”

He discovered that wasn’t the case.

“There were some really good hockey players here, but now I understand what they were talking about. No one was on the same page and put these kids on the same sheet of ice,” he said.

“That’s what I’m trying to do. If you take all of these kids from Alaska and put them on the same team, we can compete with anybody nationally. We’re right there.” 

For more about AK Selects, visit hometeamsonline.com/teams/?u=AK_SELECTS&s=hockey&t=c.

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@homernews.com.