As three months of total darkness and cold envelop Utqiagvik, Alaska, a group of dedicated young athletes rejoice in the beginning of their hockey season. Unlike their peers who delight in heated indoor basketball games, Utqiagvik’s ice hockey players embrace the bitter cold of their weathered outdoor rink.
“I'm pretty sure all of us have gotten frostbite at some point,” laughed 13-year-old Karissa Haimes. “I just wear a hoodie and pull it over my helmet, but that’s it. Well, a hoodie and a t-shirt. We don’t really sweat because it’s so cold that when we do sweat it freezes and we have ice all over our eyebrows and eyelashes. We’ve even got one player who doesn’t wear socks!”
Although doing anything outdoors with an average temperature of minus 20 would be daunting for most, Haimes’ father insists that the kids don’t really notice the cold.
“It's just normal for them, they’re really used to it and they love it! They’ll play it twice a day and every chance they get in the winter because obviously they can’t play in the summer as we have an outdoor rink. They get too hot when it’s anything approaching zero degrees or higher,” explained Everett Haimes.
While the Haimes now welcome the subzero temps, things were a little different 7 years ago when they were first approached about playing hockey.
“Our coach is our pastor and every Sunday he would always ask me when are your kids going to play hockey and I was like in Barrow? It’s too cold,” exclaimed Mae Haimes who is originally from the Phillipines. “For like a whole year I was like no but he kept saying that they could just learn to skate, so I thought maybe I would just bring them over there to learn how to skate. Then all of the sudden they were playing hockey.”
“At first we didn’t really want to play because we didn’t want to try something new in front of people we didn’t know that well. I mean, we sort of knew people from church but it’s different when you’re trying something new,” explained 13-year-old Hannah Haimes, who now plays alongside her twin sister Karissa and 11-year-old brother, Ethan.
After getting over their initial apprehensions, the Haimes trio became some of the most dedicated players and took on the responsibility of assisting with rink upkeep.
“We usually help our coach make the ice. We shovel around the rink and pick up all the trash and we paint the lines and put down the water,” said Karissa Haimes.
“Sometimes there are little holes in the boards, so the water leaks out and we have to try and patch them with snow and it takes forever,” added Hannah.
Standing right beside the Haimes is Darryl Serino, who serves not only as the team’s hockey coach but also resident ice maker, Zamboni driver and equipment manager.
Serino’s family, originally from upstate New York, had a passion for hockey, which was passed on to their children.
“We started playing street hockey in Wainwright when we were kids but then I got my first pair of skates when I was 9. I tried skating on the roads because they were icy but that didn’t work too well,” recalled Serino. “When we came to [Utqiagvik] my dad built us a backyard rink and that’s where we learned to play.”
By the time Serino was a junior in high school, he was already heavily into playing, but it was a substitute teacher from Minnesota who helped elevate his game enabling him to relocate to Fairbanks to play for the Arctic Lions his senior year. When he returned home, Serino’s new experience spurred him on to head up the Barrow Blizzard Hockey Club.
“I started coaching back in 2008 and that’s when everybody who was helping with hockey kind of left town, so I picked it up and began volunteering and ended up picking up more and more responsibility,” explained Serino. “For me, it’s not just about hockey, it’s also about having a positive environment to minister to the children. I am blessed to have the opportunity to pair two of my greatest passions together.”
Even though Serino and his players have found a way to foster their love of hockey, being the northernmost hockey club in the world comes at a price.
“This season almost didn’t happen,” explained Serino. “Our rink was actually condemned by the city’s insurance company which forced us to find third-party insurance to save the program.”
With gaping holes in its canopy tent, Utqiagvik’s 25-year-old ice rink is in a state of disrepair and the club doesn’t have the funds to run proper maintenance.
“It’s a really small community in [Utqiagvik] that plays hockey — they really love basketball more than hockey,” said Mae Haimes. “We have like 15 kids playing hockey right now ranging from five years old to 17 years old. Because the group is so small we don't really get enough support from the school or from the local government.”
“Right now, our funding is coming primarily from fundraisers. The kids make cookies and we play laser tag and host activities for the kids on Saturday nights. The borough did recently give us $5,000 to support the hockey team but that was during the elections. For the most part we are pretty much completely on our own to support ourselves, but we love it so much so we're not going to give up. It's just difficult right now,” added Everett Haimes.
A decaying rink is just one of the heads of the hydra the club is currently battling.
“There’s no resources for people to just try the sport out. We don’t have skate rentals or really any extra gear - to even try the sport you’d have to buy the gear and no one wants to buy gear for something they don’t even know if their kid will like. Even if my children’s friends wanted to play, they wouldn’t be able to because of the gear situation,” said Everett Haimes.
“I wish there were more kids that played hockey with us, so we could have our own team,” lamented Hannah Haimes. “Right now, we have to play with Tok. Nobody really knows about hockey or is interested in it.”
With the nearest competition a plane ride to Fairbanks away, the Barrow Blizzard have to make due with scrimmages against willing adult players and occasionally travel to tournaments in Anchorage and Fairbanks. The travel means added expenses to the team’s bill and with airline ticket prices as high as $600 round-trip, per person, not every player can afford to go tournaments.
All in all, the cost alone is a tough sale for many parents who opt to enroll their kids in the region’s primary sport, basketball. Still the Barrow Blizzard parents see value in continuing to fight for hockey.
“For me, I like to see my kids have activities to do. They are homeschooled and don’t get to do a lot of activities outside – this is their exercise, their teamwork. Without hockey they wouldn't have group activities where the get to learn how to work with others, cooperation, strategies in groups. Without the hockey they wouldn't have any of that. So, to see them work in a team to work beyond themselves and work to cooperate with others, I feel it's very important for them. They don't really like the other sports; to them, hockey is life. So, for them to it’s nice to have something that keeps them healthy and gets them strong. Hockey is helping them grow up very strong and very confident,” said Everett Haimes.
Despite what seems like an untenable situation, Serino believes that the Barrow Blizzard’s future isn’t necessarily bleak.
“Hockey in [Utqiagvik] has been up and down over the years but right now we have a small group of really dedicated kids and we are hoping to build on that in the future,” Serino said. “The program right now is kind of at a standstill to progress because of funding. But at the same time, hockey here in [Utqiagvik] has never been better. Ultimately, I would love to see our hockey grow to where we could have our own teams in each age level.”
For Karissa Haimes, her wishes for the Barrow Blizzard are a little more modest.
“We used to have two goalies but one of them moved to Tonga,” she said with a grin on her face. “Our one goalie now is our coach’s son and he hates being goalie but he has to because he’s the only one who knows how to play it. Sometimes we have an adult goalie who plays if they are coming up to [Utqiagvik] for work, but it would definitely be nice to have some goalies to shoot on.”
The Barrow Blizzard recently combined forces with players from Tok and Fairbanks, Alaska to compete in the AHA Turkey Shootout in Anchorage, Alaska. The U-18 team captured gold and the U-12 team walked away with silver.