JUNIOR HOCKEY: Charting a new course
NAHL’s Fairbanks Ice Dogs find temporary home in Marshall
MARSHALL — As the 2020-2021 North American Hockey League season approached in the midst of a pandemic, a difficult decision loomed for Rob Proffitt, the 23-year General Manager of the Fairbanks Ice Dogs hockey team. With added expenses providing unprecedented hurdles to jump through, the team could either follow the lead of four other league franchises and temporarily shut down, or find a new location to call home.
After dwelling on the decision and weighing his options, Proffitt elected to follow his heart and chose the latter–eventually selecting Marshall as the team’s new, temporary home among a handful of other locations in the running.
For Proffitt, a brief conversation with Marshall Convention and Visitors Bureau Director Cassi Weiss reaffirmed his decision.
“Once I spent 15 minutes on the phone with Cassi, it was an absolute no brainer,” said Proffitt.
With the guidance of Weiss, Marshall Amateur Hockey Association President Josh Johnson, along with Shane Plante, Cody Mellenthin, Rick Schaeffer and many others, the group laid the groundwork for what needed to be done in order to operate a junior hockey team in Marshall.
Among the biggest challenges was finding billet families in town to house the players on short notice and in the middle of a pandemic. According to Proffitt, the group made the task look relatively easy.
“It was my scariest venture when we started, but credit to Johnson, Shane Plante and his family, and Schaeffer and his family and many others. They made it happen in an unbelievably short amount of time,” said Proffitt.
“It was unbelievable. Not only opening your house up to somebody you’ve never met before, but during this pandemic I thought that was going to be a really big challenge and they made it look pretty easy–I can tell you that. They did an unbelievable job,” he added.”
Nearly a month into the transition to their new home, Proffitt thanks the entire community for the warm welcome they’ve provided to the team.
“This community–I can’t even put into words what they’ve done and laid out the red carpet for us to give us a chance to basically just survive,” said Proffitt. “It’s been unbelievable.”
The Ice Dogs opened their regular season schedule on Nov. 5 and have played a total of four games since, including a two game series against Midwest Division rival Janesville Jets, followed by their most recent series against the Aberdeen Wings. Through four games, the Ice Dogs sit at 0-4.
All four of the teams that make up the Midwest division, including the Ice Dogs, Jets, Kenai River Brown Bears, Minnesota Magicians and Chippewa Steel started the season later than many of the other teams in the 23-team league. In spite of the late start, Proffitt is confident in his team and what they can accomplish this season under head coach Trevor Stewart.
“We have a trust within our staff with Trevor and Scott (Deur) on the bench that they’ll make the guys better everyday, and we’ll see where we’re at in April. But I like our chances.”
The Ice Dogs are coming off of a strong season in 2019-2020 that was cut short prematurely due to COVID. The team finished with a record of 38-11 and ended up at the top of the Midwest Division standings.
to Ice Dogs
The return to the friendly confines of the Red Baron Arena was especially sweet for Marshall High School hockey alumni Mason Plante and Kaleb Welvaert, who have reunited on the Ice Dogs roster and returned home to live with their parents during the season. Plante said getting the chance to play with his cousin again is a surreal experience.
“I don’t even have words for that. I missed playing with him. He’s such a good hockey player and it seems like we just seem to know exactly where each other are on the ice, and to be back in Marshall playing together is even more surreal,” said Plante. “All in all it’s just a dream come true getting to play with him again.”
In having a built-in familiarity with the area, Plante and Welvaert have served as guides for members of the team.
“I feel kind of like a taxi driver sometimes, but it’s all good,” Plante said with a laugh.
Plante is entering his second full season with the Ice Dogs after a strong rookie campaign that saw him net 12 goals and register 18 assists for 30 points. For his efforts, he was extended a Division I offer by Alaska-Fairbanks where he will become the very first Tiger boys hockey player to play at that level after graduating from Marshall High School. In the meantime, Plante is focused on making the most of his final season in junior hockey and hopefully raising the Robertson Cup by season’s end.
“We want to be the last team standing,” said Plante. Every guy is playing to move on to play Division I hockey along with bringing the Robertson Cup back to Fairbanks, so I think the expectation is just to get out and play hockey the way we know how.”
Welvaert is entering his first full season with the club after skating in one game for the Ice Dogs last season. Welvaert most recently played for the Tigers in 2019-2020 where he capped off his four-year varsity career by setting new highs in goals (11) and assists (21) for 32 points in his senior season.
While the junior hockey living situation is not what he envisioned prior to the start of the year, Welvaert has been enjoying the company of his teammate, Barak Braslavski of San Jose, California, who now lives with him and his family.
“Honestly, it just feels like I’m getting a little taste of (junior hockey) since I’m just living at home,” said Welvaert. “I do have a guy living with me, Barak Braslavski. He’s been great. It’s been awesome having him around, and my brothers love him and parents love him. He’s such a nice guy to have around and it’s been nice.”
Welvaert recently recorded his first point in junior hockey with an assist on Bret Link’s goal on Friday against the Aberdeen Wings.
“The first point was pretty easy, I kind of just threw the puck down the wall from up top to Linker (Bret Link) and he had quite an amazing shot there to put it upstairs over the tender,” said Welvaert. “It was really good to get that out of the way.”
Looking ahead to the rest of the season, Welvaert is focused on improving daily by following the advice of his coaches.
“I think the biggest thing is just listening to the coaches. The coaching style is a lot different, I’m getting a lot more used to that now and I’m really liking it, said Welvaert. “It’s a lot more fast-paced and they tell you what you’re doing wrong all the time. That’s what you need to hear, and teach you how to fix it. You live and you learn.
Marshall’s first taste of junior hockey
Marshall hockey fans will have their first chance to see the Ice Dogs in action at Red Baron Arena in two weeks when the team hosts the Aberdeen Wings on Nov. 27–the first of six games scheduled to be played by the Ice Dogs at Red Baron Arena.
Following the latest COVID guidelines set forth by Governor Tim Walz, the Ice Dogs and Red Baron Arena issued a press release for information regarding ticket sales:
“The City of Marshall is proud to host their first NAHL hockey game between the Fairbanks Ice Dogs and Aberdeen Wings on Nov. 27 at the Red Baron Arena & Expo.Tickets are available now for all 3 weekends at marshall.sportngin.com/register/form/950968836. The
Fairbanks Ice Dogs will host six games taking place at the Red Baron Arena & Expo on Nov. 27 & 28 vs. Aberdeen, Dec. 4th & 5th vs. Austin, Dec. 18 & 19 vs. Bismark. Tickets for all games are available now on the website listed above.
Due to COVID Guidelines, 250 tickets will be sold for each game, masks and social distancing will be required. Doors will open 45 minutes prior to game time. Anyone not cooperating with COVID guidelines will be asked to leave.”
— Content courtesy
of Fairbanks Ice Dogs,
MAHA and Red
Baron Arena and Expo