For more than a decade, pond hockey teams from Juneau would head north for an annual old-timers tournament in Haines Junction, Yukon Territory.
The Haines Junction tournament was one of the few times each year the Juneau players got to play at an indoor ice rink, and they even won the tournament in 2000. Before the Juneau players returned home, they always promised to host the next tournament.
This weekend, the Juneau players finally got to keep that promise by hosting the Juneau Old-Timers International Invitational, the first hockey tournament to be held in the new Treadwell Arena in Douglas.
To cap off a weekend that was glorious for local hockey players, the Juneau Aces won the championship on Sunday as they rallied from a two-goal deficit to beat Anchorage's Play It Again Sports, 3-2.
"We're in hockey heaven," said Steve Woods, who scored one goal and assisted on the other two for the Aces. "If it exists, we're there."
"It's a miracle," tournament organizer Joe Geldhof said Friday night after watching the Juneau Aces beat Anchorage 2-1 in the opening game. "We're so used to playing in Haines Junction. This is the first year we've been able to return the hospitality. There's a lot of people we've played with for 15 years up in the Yukon, and these guys were saying they'd never been in Juneau before. This sort of knits together the communities and helps Juneau become more of a northern town."
Geldhof then pointed out a couple of links between the Juneau Aces and Anchorage - such as Sen. Ben Stevens of Anchorage playing defense for Juneau and Juneau resident Harry Keller watching his son Doug play for Anchorage.
"I had to lobby to get on the Juneau team," said Stevens, who played a year of college hockey at St. Lawrence University and who said he might put the tournament trophy on his desk during a future session of the Senate.
The Anchorage team was organized by Ken Notley, who used to manage the Foot Locker store in Juneau. Anchorage goalie Jason Dinneen, whose parents and older brother used to live in Juneau, said there were at least five Anchorage players with similar ties to Juneau.
"We've been promising Haines Junction we'd host this tournament for years," said Art Hughes, who scored the game-winning goals for Juneau in both victories over Anchorage. "We've got a couple of guys who have been going up there for more than a decade."
"It's not so much about winning, but having a tournament here," said Dave McKenna of the Aces, who said he and his brother Tom have been going to Haines Junction since 1987.
Most of the players, including the visiting teams, agreed with McKenna. They wanted a chance to check out Juneau's new rink.
After his team lost 7-1 to Haines Junction on Friday, one unidentified player from a Juneau team organized by Tim Bristol was overheard saying, "We lost, but we played in Douglas so I feel like we won."
"It's glorious, the best ice in town," added Chris Mertl, who helped Geldhof organize the tournament and also put together a Juneau team called the Green Hornets. "We've been playing out on ponds, or flooding Melvin Park. It's been nice always having good consistent ice since the arena opened. We're all hockey enthusiasts, and it's nice to host the tournament for a change."
The eight-team tourney featured four teams from Juneau. The Aces had the more experienced local players and three other local teams had a mixture of some experienced players and some new to the game - the Green Hornets, the Juneau-Bristol team and a team put together by John Ingalls called Code Red.
The other squads included the team from Anchorage; a pick-up team of players from Petersburg, Sitka, Wrangell, Haines and other Southeast communities; a team from Haines Junction and a team from Mount Lorne, Yukon Territory. The Haines Junction team supplied the tournament trophy.
"We've really been looking forward to it (a tournament in Juneau) the last couple of years," said Bill Ford of Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, who played for Haines Junction and was the oldest player at 80 years old (his jersey reads "Old Fossil"). "We've known them all for years, and they let me get on the ice with them. I've been looking forward to this and I made sure I was here."
Kurt Wohlhueter of Petersburg organized the Petersburg-Sitka team, which also featured his twin brother Kim of Seattle and a couple of players from Whitehorse. Kurt Wohlhueter said most of the players on his team were happy to see a rink in Southeast Alaska, so they didn't have to go to Canada or up to Anchorage anytime they wanted to play hockey. Ernie Christian of Wrangell said many of the players on the Petersburg-Sitka team had never played together until Friday night.
"We've got some guys in Petersburg who've played hockey before, but this is the first time we've played on a rink in Southeast," Wohlhueter said. "It's been beaver ponds, or some of us have played with the Juneau club when it went to Haines Junction. This is great. We're going to be coming up here once a month."
The tournament was for players age 32 and older, but a couple of older teenagers were given age exemptions to play, most of them with family members in the tournament. Besides Ford, Haines Junction had 66-year-old Merv Armstrong score a goal on Friday and several other players in their 50s. If any of the games would have ended in a tie, the first tie-breaker was the average age of the team (oldest wins) and Haines Junction had the oldest team by far.
A few women also saw action, such as Linda Woods of the Green Hornets, whose husband Steve Woods played for the Aces and teenaged son Willie Dahl played for Code Red. Code Red, which had four young players with age exemptions, was by far the youngest.
For many of the Juneau players, the ice rink and tournament were a long time in coming. They remember worrying about whether the ice at Auke Lake or Twin Lakes would hold all the players, or how long it took to flood the baseball diamonds at Melvin Park.
"I only had to wait 28 years for this," said Steve Woods, who grew up playing hockey in Massachusetts. "I remember staying up until 2 a.m. hot-mopping the ice at Melvin Park. It would take us eight hours of work just to get one hour of recreation. This is what the community's needed for a long time. When we'd travel to Anchorage, the family was always in the rinks. This is a first-class venue and a community asset. There are lots of winter activities ahead at this place."
"I've been playing pond hockey for a decade," said Juneau-Bristol player Michelle Ridgeway, who plays with a women's league team in Anchorage whenever her job takes her north. "We had what we called 'The Dream Team,' and we were dreaming of this. I'm thrilled."
Geldhof, who also played for Juneau-Bristol, said he'd hoped to get four A (experienced) teams and six B teams in the tournament. But there were tournaments in Whitehorse and in Soldotna that siphoned off several teams he invited to Juneau. Even though a team from Atlin, British Columbia, couldn't make the tournament, it did send a provincial flag to hang in the rink with the one from Yukon Territory.
Each of the eight teams was guaranteed three round-robin games, although there wasn't a true separation between A and B team pools. The top four teams advanced to Sunday's gold (championship) and bronze (consolation) games. Mount Lorne (a small community north of Carcross) beat the Green Hornets 2-1 in the bronze game.
Due to time constraints, each game was played in two 20-minute halves instead of hockey's usual three periods. While there was a good deal of contact, the games were played with the usual no-check rules of old-timer leagues. Slap shots also were banned.
In Sunday's gold game, Anchorage scored 17 seconds into the first half as Brian Burke scored on an assist from Andy Tierney. Anchorage made it 2-0 with 1 minute, 36 seconds left when Paul Doherty scored on assists from Burke and Tierney.
But the Aces seemed to have stronger legs in the second half. Steve Woods scored Juneau's first goal on an assist from Dave McKenna just 41 seconds into the second half. Just over three minutes later, Art Hughes tied the score with a power-play goal assisted by Woods.
Those two combined again about two minutes later, with Hughes scoring the game-winner on a 5-on-3 power play with another assist by Woods. The Aces' defense killed off a 5-on-3 power play midway through the second half, even getting a couple of good rushes from Woods.
Juneau thought it had an insurance goal by Woods with 3:36 left in the game, but the apparent goal was waved off because an Aces player was in the crease.
"We had to win the first, inaugural tournament," Aces player John Stone said. "This is just the start of something big, and it's only going to get bigger. In a few years you'll come to watch a tournament, and it will be the kids. This is the best thing to happen to Douglas in the last 20 to 25 years. We had the home crowd behind us."
Charles Bingham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Game scores from the Juneau Old-Timers International Invitational hockey tournament, the first hockey tournament to take place at the Treadwell Arena.
Game 1 - Juneau Aces 2, Anchorage 1.
Game 2 - Mount Lorne 7, Petersburg-Sitka 2.
Game 3 - Haines Junction 7, Juneau-Bristol 1.
Game 4 - Green Hornets 2, Code Red 0.
Game 5 - Anchorage 11, Petersburg-Sitka 6.
Game 6 - Juneau Aces 7, Haines Junction 4.
Game 7 - Mount Lorne 2, Green Hornets 1.
Game 8 - Petersburg-Sitka 10, Code Red 2.
Game 9 - Green Hornets 5, Juneau-Bristol 1.
Game 10 - Anchorage 3, Haines Junction 0.
Game 11 - Juneau Aces 3, Mount Lorne 1.
Game 12 - Code Red 2, Juneau-Bristol 1.
Bronze (consolation) - Mount Lorne 2, Green Hornets 1.
Gold (championship) - Juneau Aces 3, Anchorage 2.