The Anchorage Wolverines are on the road for the first time in franchise history, which makes coach Mike Aikens feel right at home.
The Wolverines, a Tier II junior team that plays in the North American Hockey League, open their inaugural season this week at the NAHL Showcase, a four-day tournament in Blaine, Minnesota.
Blaine is less than two hours away from Rochester, Minnesota, which is where Aikens grew up and is currently raising a family. He’s living in Anchorage during the hockey season, but his home remains in Rochester, where his wife and youngest daughter still live.
After the long trip from Anchorage to Minneapolis, Aikens headed to Rochester on Monday afternoon to surprise his wife, Hope, and their 16-year-old daughter, Brianna. Sydney and Shea — the family’s dogs, named after NHL players Sidney Crosby and Shea Weber (Sydney the dog is a female, hence the alternate spelling) — met him at the door.
“I’ve been in Anchorage since Aug. 11, so going on a month now,” Aikens said. “With all the technology and Facetiming and everything, it certainly helps, but it doesn’t replace the real thing. It was good for everybody to see everybody again.”
Aikens spoke on Tuesday afternoon while driving back to Blaine to rejoin the rest of the Wolverines, who open the season Wednesday with a game against the El Paso Rhinos of Texas.
He was driving an SUV jam-packed with equipment. To save on shipping costs, dozens of new Bauer hockey sticks for the Wolverines were sent to Rochester instead of Anchorage, in care of Aiken’s parents.
After the Showcase ends on Saturday, all of the Wolverines will head to Rochester, which will serve as their home base for the final two weeks of their three-week, season-opening road trip.
“It worked out good for the organization,” Aikens said. “I got a good rate at a hotel here and the rink is basically across the street, so we’re not having to pay the expense of $800 to $1,000 a day for the bus to just sit there.”
So before he even coaches a game, Aikens is earning his keep with the Wolverines.
Aikens, 50, has been around hockey most of his life, especially junior hockey. This is his fourth go-round as a head coach — he served in that capacity for the USHL’s Omaha Lancers (2010-13, the first two seasons as an assistant) and Rochester Mustangs (1998-99), and for the NAHL’s Billings Bulls (2001-04).
After he left the Lancers in 2013, Aikens took a break from coaching full-time and settled down in Rochester, where he grew up. Hope works there as a nurse, Brianna is a junior in high school and his other daughter, Maren, just started her freshman year at Augsburg College in Minneapolis.
“Originally why I got out of the coaching business eight years ago is it felt like the girls were at a point where we didn’t feel it was fair to them to be hired and fired and moving all across the country and all that,” Aikens said.
He stayed connected to the game by working as the lead skating and hockey trainer at Rochester’s Olmsted Medical Center. For the past three years, he has also worked as an assistant coach for the Rochester Grizzlies of the NA3HL, a tier just below the NAHL. Last season, Aikens helped the Grizzlies make it to the NAHL’s Fraser Cup — they lost to the North Iowa Bulls — and Rochester was named the NA3HL organization of the year.
It was his job with the Grizzlies that put Aikens on the 3,000-mile path to Anchorage.
Keith Morris, the director of hockey operations for the Wolverines, called Aikens several months ago to ask about some Rochester players the Wolverines were interested in. During the conversation, Morris told Aikens about the new Anchorage team, but they never spoke about the coaching position.
Not long after that, Aikens heard from his friend Dallas Ferguson, the former UAF coach and current assistant coach at the University of Denver. Ferguson told Aikens about the Wolverines, said they were looking for a coach, and asked if he could give Aikens’ phone number to the new team’s owners.
“My first reaction was, oh man, Anchorage is a long way away, it’s an expansion team, and I didn’t know much about it,” Aikens said. “As I learned more about Sullivan Arena and Anchorage and the ownership group, I started to get excited about the opportunity.”
He took the job, but left his family in Rochester — he didn’t think it would be fair to make Brianna transfer to a new high school.
He gets housing and a vehicle as part of his contract with the Wolverines, “and I consider myself a full-time Anchorage resident now,” he said (even though he misses the pierogis).
“Who knows? I might be with the Wolverines for 10 years,” he said.
Or maybe not.
After he left the Omaha Lancers and returned to Rochester, Aikens went back to college and finished the degree he started at the University of Denver in 1990.
“I went back with the idea that if a college coaching opportunity presented itself, I would go that route,” he said. “I’ve had schools in the past (interested) and I had to tell them I didn’t have my college degree.
“So I finished my degree to get a college job, and to get a college job I needed to get back into junior hockey as a steppingstone. I enjoy junior hockey and I enjoy coaching at this level. If the right college opportunity presented itself, I would look at it.”
Aikens said he has not applied for the UAA coaching job. For one thing, he doesn’t think he’s qualified to be an NCAA head coach quite yet. For another, he’s committed to guiding the Wolverines as they establish themselves in the NAHL.
The Wolverines played four times — two intrasquad scrimmages and two exhibition games — before hitting the road. In the exhibition games against the Fairbanks Ice Dogs, Fairbanks won the first game 7-1 and Anchorage won the second game 6-3.
“Game 1 we were very competitive other than eight minutes in the second period,” Aikens said. “We were not very good and we gave up some bad goals. We just handed Fairbanks too many opportunities.
“We came back the next day and won 6-3, and it was a step in the right direction. We left the rink feeling like, hey, we can compete in this league.”
The Wolverines will get a better idea how they stack up during their long road trip. After four games in four days at the NAHL Showcase, they play a two-game series Sept. 24-25 against the Minnesota Magicians and a three-game series Sept. 30-Oct. 2 against the Chippewa Steel.
They return to Anchorage for a home-opening series Oct. 15-17 against the Springfield Jr. Blues of Illinois. The site of those games is still undetermined.
Wolverines at NAHL Showcase
Wednesday — El Paso Rhinos, 11:45 a.m. CDT
Thursday — Danbury Jr. Hat Tricks, 5 p.m.
Friday — Wichita Warriors, 4:30 p.m.
Saturday — Johnstown Tomahawks, 9:30 a.m.