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Hockey: Irish travel to Fairbanks to face Nanooks, cold weather

Joe Meixell | Thursday, February 15, 2007

Notre Dame has already left for another weekend road trip where its status as the country’s best team will be put up for debate.

But this time the Irish must travel thousands of miles to a land that’s covered in snow – yet oddly where snowballs are impossible to make due to a lack of moisture – and to where one longtime resident gushed about the beautiful, blue winter skies that sometimes last four hours a day.

Notre Dame’s heading to Alaska.

The Irish embarked Wednesday on a five-day trip to the Great White North for a two-game series against the Alaska Nanooks, the first time the team has made the trip since an ill-fated trek over Thanksgiving break in 2004. To put the massive undertaking it requires to travel to Fairbanks – a town of 31,000 located squarely in central Alaska – into context, if the Irish were to play a team in Bogota, Colombia, it would be over 200 miles closer than it would be to travel the 2,900 miles to Fairbanks.

The Irish upperclassmen who made the trip in their then-freshman and sophomore seasons in 2004 recalled the shock they received when they first stepped outside in Fairbanks after a 27-hour trip hampered by snowed-in roads, delayed flights and spotty Alaskan air travel.

“It’s cold. I remember stepping outside the doors of the airport and just having to take a couple breaths just to catch your breath because it hurts,” Irish goalie Dave Brown said. “The wind, the air is just so cold it takes a little getting used to, that’s for sure.”

But Alaska coach Tavis MacMillan – the longtime resident who has spent years in Fairbanks as a player and now a coach in his third season with the Nanooks – and Irish coach Jeff Jackson offered up different views of the land of the Midnight Sun.

“When you go to the Midwest, you see gray sky all the time. You have to take a paintbrush with you and some colors,” MacMillan said. “There’s blue sky [here] – its beautiful – not a cloud in the sky.

“Everyone always says that where they live is God’s country – to me this is God’s country.”

MacMillan said that the extreme cold is not a problem for most of his players, because most were raised in Western Canada – but “the Vancouver guys are a little soft though.”

Jackson has not made the trip to Alaska since he coached Lake Superior State in the mid-1990s, but the second-year coach will be heading north again this summer for a fishing trip even farther north than Fairbanks, he said.

“I wish we were going up there a day early so we could actually do something, to make it an educational experience,” Jackson said.

The team left Wednesday for Chicago, where it practiced on an Olympic-size ice sheet in Orland Park to prepare for Alaska’s similarly larger sheet. The Irish flew to Fairbanks today, where they will get a practice in tonight and Friday morning before Friday night’s game. Jackson said that classroom restraints kept the Irish from traveling a day earlier – when other CCHA teams normally travel.

“It was 30 degrees colder than anything I had experienced around this area,” Irish center Mark Van Guilder said of the trip his freshman year. “But there’s no wind, it’s really peaceful. The wind [in South Bend] is just killing me.”

Back in 2004, the Irish took off for Fairbanks in a blizzard that reduced their bus ride to a flight at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport to a five-hour crawl. And once the team reached O’Hare, an eight-hour storm delay kept them grounded in a crowded terminal.

But former Irish players Tony Gill and Morgan Cey provided enough comic relief to keep the team – and the rest of the trapped holiday travelers – busy for hours with a dollar bill attached to a string that the players placed in the middle of the terminal and yanked away whenever a passerby went to grab it.

“Tony was in charge at first with pulling the string back with the dollar on it,” Van Guilder said. “Until he pulled it back on a two-year old girl, and everyone booed him. Then Morgan took over after that.”

Once the weather cleared a little bit and the Irish were able to land in Anchorage, Alaska, they hit yet another patch of black ice when their plane could not leave. But after over a full-day of delays, pranks and travel, they made it and beat the Nanooks 3-2 on the first night – one of five wins in the entire season.

Jackson said the team did most of its bonding during the early season travel this year to New England and Florida, so the trip won’t be seen as an increased chance to become more tight-knit. He also said the Irish haven’t done anything yet that he has not seen before in his three decades of hockey road trips.

“Hockey players are all the same,” Jackson said. “There’s always occasional ketchup on somebody’s shoe under the table. Then they do the wedding bell – ring the glasses – that means somebody’s got ketchup or butter or something on their shoe.”

But Jackson acknowledged that he wasn’t an authority on everything that happened on the road.

“They don’t want me to know what’s going on anyway, are you kidding me?”

The Irish hope that there will not be a repeat of the Alaska trip two years ago, but it still brings back some warm memories – at least on first thought.

“It’s not too bad,” Van Guilder said before pausing. “Uh yeah, it’s kind of bad.”