Anchorage has a close knit hockey community, but if players want to continue on to college hockey or eventually play professionally, they have to move away from Alaska at a fairly young age – leaving friendships behind.
They use their short breaks back home to re-live some of those childhood memories on the ice. And, the 5th Annual Christmas Classic gives them that opportunity.
Tanner Sorenson is flying around the ice at Anchorage’s Bonnie Cusack’s Outdoor Rinks, moving with a well-practiced stride that has been perfected over many years of skating at Anchorage’s ice rinks.
He rings a shot off the goal post, watching it sail high over the boards, narrowly missing a car parked nearby.
Tanner flew into Anchorage early this morning from Michigan State University, where he’s playing his final year of college hockey.
Though Tanner enjoys playing on the larger stage, with high pressure to perform in front of thousands of fans, he says getting back on the outdoor ice is relaxing.
“Just get to have fun, do whatever you want, mess around, no one’s gonna get too upset,” he said. “I mean, obviously everyone’s so competitive with hockey and sports in general. But, outside of that, there’s no systems, no pressure, I think it’s just everyone having kind of a good time and kinda getting together with your buddies when you come back from school and whatnot, which is always fun.”
Tanner has been living halfway across the country since he started high school. As he was entering 9th grade, he was recruited to play hockey at Minnesota’s Shattuck St. Mary’s – a prep school with a reputation of churning out future college hockey and professional stars.
Now on Michigan State’s roster, Tanner says the transition to living away from home during his early teenage years wasn’t too difficult.
But, it meant leaving behind a lifetime of friends. So, whenever he makes it back up to Alaska, he takes advantage of the time he has to reconnect.
“We always get together, come out here, have some fun, mess around, kind of enjoy being back,” Tanner said. “I mean, it’s nothing serious, we just like to – I guess it’s a time to get away and hang out, rest, catch up on what we’ve missed, how school’s going, how we’re doing, and all that.”
Of course, leaving the state to play high school hockey also meant leaving his family. Tanner’s dad is Dennis Sorenson, who is well known in Alaska’s hockey community. He’s been coaching in the state since 1984, after finishing his collegiate hockey career at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
I meet Dennis at another local ice rink, where he’s coaching Anchorage’s Dimond High School.
During his time coaching, Dennis has helped hundreds of players go on to compete at hockey’s highest levels. And he says it’s important for the players to get back on the outdoor ice where they started, to put a smile back on their face and to remind themselves why they love the game.
“Sometimes the team game, the team takes over for the fun, because winning is real important,” he said. “So, they get out there, and it doesn’t matter if they win or lose, they’re out there doing moves they haven’t done in years, and they just feel like, the best thing is going on in the world.”
“Nobody is yelling at them nobody cares, they’re just having a good time with their friends and doing something positive.”
The Sorenson’s story is common in Alaska’s hockey community. Bryce Christianson is another player who grew up in Alaska, but eventually had to leave to further his hockey career.
He’s the founder and organizer of the Christmas Classic outdoor hockey tournament. Bryce says it started off small – as a way to get some friends together who had gone their separate ways for junior and college hockey.
“The first year, the idea was just to see how many guys we could together to come out and play some hockey,” Bryce said. “And the first year we went on Facebook and got 20 guys together; the next year we got 40 guys and then it started to progress; and the third year we ended up having 60, and at that point it’s like, hey all these guys together, we’ve gotta do it for something more, we’ve gotta do it for a cause.”
That cause ended up being Toys for Tots. Last year, the tournament fielded 96 players and contributed 208 toys. This year, it’s even bigger, with more than 125 players signed up to play.
Both Dennis and Tanner are participating in this year’s tournament. Tanner says it’ll be nice to get back out on the ice with old friends, even if he already plays against some of them in college.
“It’s kind of funny, we’ll get there, line up against them, give them a nice little slash on the back or whatever and kind of laugh it off, but definitely when the pucks going, it’s kind of all in,” Tanner said. “Everyone’s so serious, you don’t even realize that’s your buddy until the end of the game.”
“So, it’s definitely fun when we get back and talk about the games we’ve played against each other and whatnot. I know everyone’s pretty excited to come to this tournament.”
As the tournament expands, its goal is to be a family event. This year there will be a heating tent, free food and drinks. Bryce is even trying to get a Santa for the kids and some live music for those who stop by. There will also be Marines standing by for toy dropoffs – and of course some great hockey.
The tournament is on Saturday, Dec. 20 at Anchorage’s Bonnie Cusack outdoor rinks near the Sullivan Arena. The heating tent, food, and registration tables should be ready by 10:30 a.m. and hockey will begin at 11:00 a.m.