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Right at home, half a world away

Joe Meixell | Friday, March 3, 2006

This road trip has had a little more to offer Alaska-Fairbanks than its typical 3,500 mile treks. In all the Nanooks will have dealt with two consecutive weekends of cutthroat hockey, nearly two weeks in a South Bend hotel, a majority of the team falling ill and even the supernatural.

Hunkering down

After splitting last weekend’s series with the Irish, the Nanooks decided to stay in town while waiting for this weekend’s first round of the playoffs rather than return to Fairbanks. As a result the Nanooks have been forced to headquarter themselves out of the local Jameson Inn since Feb. 22.

“Everyone likes being around each other,” sophomore left wing Kyle Greentree said of the team being stuck in a hotel for long periods of time. “We’d rather be at home, but we’re pretty comfortable on the road. In Alaska we travel a lot and stuff, so it’s not much of a problem.”

Alaska-Fairbanks head coach Tavis MacMillan has had no trouble keeping his team from suffering cabin fever. The squad has followed a set schedule filled with events to pass time.

The Nanooks spend every morning practicing in the Joyce Center in preparation for the Irish this weekend. Lunch, strength training, and a two-hour study session occupy a majority of the team’s afternoon until dinner. The past few nights the team has spent at the mall or lounging around the hotel.

The team even took a road trip within a road trip on Wednesday night when they watched the Chicago Blackhawks battle the Nashville Predators at Chicago’s United Center.

As the team gets closer to game day however, video sessions and pre-game rituals will start to come into play more and more.

“Hockey-wise it’s not bad at all,” MacMillan said of the team’s situation. “I get to concentrate on hockey here. For our guys it’s hockey, hockey, hockey, which is a great environment for me to be in. On the flipside I don’t get the other part – the big part of my life – which is my family.”

Wearing out

The greatest challenge for the Nanooks so far this trip has been illness. A day or two after last weekend’s series wrapped up, the Alaskans started to fall one by one to an upper respiratory ailment. MacMillan estimates that three-quarters of his team has been stricken by the bug.

“You’re in a hotel and it’s all confined, so it’s tough to get away from one another,” MacMillan said. “You get sick – everybody gets sick. So the challenge for us right now is trying to get healthy by game time.”

Greentree acknowledged that hotel life has contributed to the team’s ailing state, but he is fully confident it will have no effect on this weekend’s play.

“It happens,” he said. “Coming into the playoffs we’re going to have to suck it up.”

Hitting the books

It’s easy to forget amid the playoff buzz and long trips that the Nanooks are not just hockey players, but full-time college students.

In order to stay up on their classes, the team has instituted study sessions where the players must catch up on schoolwork.

Prior to leaving for South Bend, MacMillan conducted a grade check on his players. The results were positive, only five C’s in 125 course grades.

“They take a lot of pride in their academics,” MacMillan said of his players. “They’re working hard – they’re staying in communication with professors. The Internet is a powerful tool now. Academically years ago this would have been a big problem, but nowadays with computer and e-mail you can stay up on stuff.”

Ghostbusters

The hotel has even provided the Nanooks with several deviant challenges of its own. Rumors have flown around the team that several murders took place in Rm. 307 of the Jameson Inn – a room inhabited by several Alaska players.

“There’s some weird things that have been going on,” Greentree said. “The TV would just pop on by itself and doors would fly open. I’m just glad I’m not staying in that room. Geez, I’d be scared s– less ya know.”

The Nanooks have not kept themselves confined to the Joyce Center ice facilities while on campus. Several players have wandered around campus checking out landmarks and getting a feel for college life here at Notre Dame.

“It’s really mild here, it’s not cold at all,” Greentree said of South Bend’s climate. “We got to check out the football stadium. We just kind of looked in, took a quick peak. We cruised around a bit, we saw the library. We’ve got an overall glimpse of everything and it’s pretty cool.”

While his players checked out Touchdown Jesus, MacMillan turned a trained eye toward the Joyce Center ice surface. He found it comparable to the Carlson Center ice his Nanooks play on in Fairbanks due to the lack of hot spots along the boards. Pucks hit against the Joyce Center boards do not ricochet wildly, as is often found in many other arenas.

“The corners don’t come as fast at you as in Michigan State or Bowling Green,” MacMillan said. “They’re really rounded. The puck is in the corner and you’re already on top of the net when you get to the corner the way they round [in MSU and BG]. But here the corners are a lot deeper, which is more similar to what we have.”

But when it all comes down to it – it’s all about the hockey. And that is what MacMillan, Greentree and the rest of the Nanooks take as the greatest benefit of this 3,500 mile trip.

“When we’re back in Fairbanks, not only the players but also us coaches get pulled in so many different directions with people’s wants and needs,” MacMillan said. “Being at this place and being at that place for meetings. So from a pure hockey standpoint – this is as good as it gets for us.”