The Alaska All Stars 16 & Under team sat at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport hours before their scheduled flight to Chesterfield, Mo. Some played cards. Others did their homework. Everyone had their fingers crossed.
Alaska’s Mount Redoubt hadn’t erupted since 1989, but with the volcano rumbling in the distance and the airport canceling most flights out, the chances of the team making it to the USA Hockey National Championship tournament were slim.
“Everyone was nervous,” said Jared Hanson, who lives more than an hour away from Anchorage. “The parents were more optimistic, but we didn’t really expect to get out. We were all pretty panicked.”
Located in the Aleutian Mountain Range, a little more than 100 miles southwest of Anchorage, predictions of Redoubt’s imminent eruption began in early March. As volcanic activity increased, ash was spewed 65,000 feet into the atmosphere, shutting down the airport a week prior to the start of the tournament.
“The ash was falling. It was dusty and kind of nasty,” said Alaska forward Jared Linnell, a resident of North Pole, Alaska, who had been living with a family in Anchorage so he could play with the team. “You would walk outside and you could taste it. It was bad.”
The team had a couple of backup plans, ranging from a 360-mile drive to the airport in Fairbanks or taking the Alaska Marine Ferry System to the southeast part of the state and flying out from there. Still, neither of those options guaranteed an easy way out.
Things looked even shakier when, with the team waiting inside the terminal, Mount Redoubt blew its top again.
Before the wind had a chance to make the ash conditions worse, one airline decided to sneak a flight out of town. The crew quickly loaded the luggage, and with cheers erupting from inside the cabin, the first flight in six days left Anchorage.
“The kids had worked so hard. It would have been heartbreaking if we couldn’t have gotten on a flight,” said Alaska head coach Kory Wright. “There was a window of opportunity, and we happened to make it.”
After a connecting flight in Minneapolis, the Alaska All Stars arrived in St. Louis at 2 a.m., the day before the start of the tournament. A big sigh of relief and some rest were first on the agenda followed by a short practice before an opening game loss to Team Comcast the next day.
A convincing victory against Shattuck St. Mary’s and a come-from-behind win over the Colorado Thunderbirds propelled the All Stars to the semifinals, where they lost to the eventual National Champions Detroit Compuware. Alaska finished 3-2 in the tournament with their only losses to the two teams that played in the national championship game.
“I think the chance that we got doesn’t come around that often,” Hanson said. “The level of teams we got to play against was good and being third in the nation is an accomplishment.”
While the competition at a USA Hockey National tournament is fierce, it pales in comparison to anything Mother Nature has in her arsenal.
“The first obstacle course was getting past the volcanic eruption,” said Wright. “Once we passed that big hurdle, we felt like we could get through anything.”
Sometimes, the puck just bounces in your favor.
Photos - AVO/USGS, STL Digital