Looking back at the 2017-18 season, the Eagle River Hockey League definitely came into its own.
Preseason assertions that the ERHL would be nothing more than “just another beer league” fell by the wayside as week by week the dedication of players, coaches, sponsors, and those in the stands became apparent.
I am an outsider to the hockey world. I have to admit, my assumption of a small town adult hockey league was that it would be something akin to adult pick-up basketball games at the YMCA; lots of ace bandages and ill-fitting tank tops. What I came to discover after covering about 25 games over the space of a week, was that the ERHL is highly organized, locally supported, masterfully publicized, stylistically merchandised, and serious hockey league.
Many hands came together to make the ERHL happen. However, it was garage discussions between Steve Glines, Reid McDonald, and Walter Eunice that the league had its genesis. You could say, it was fun and humor which motivated the creation of the ERHL. As McDonald tells it, the more the concept of the league developed, the more McDonald and Glines discovered a common humor which riffed really well into an off-the-cuff season-long narrative spoof on professional hockey.
The league’s Instagram is a treasure chest of comedy. A clip of ERHL superhero mascot “Earl” on a deep sea Hawaiian fishing charter is just the tip of the entertaining iceberg.
“We went over for a buddy’s wedding and brought Earl along. We try to make it fun,” McDonald said. “Adult humor is definitely the cornerstone of our social media game.”
A preseason “draft” camp for players finished up with a bag skate where a few players puked by the end of it. The draft itself was real. Glines made a draft board with all the player’s names on movable tabs, ranked accordingly by their peers.
“We flipped a coin, and the four team captains picked 1,2,3,4… What beer leagues out there have a camp and a draft? It was great,” McDonald said.
The draft had a strategic bit of fantasy hockey to it as well. The real-life commitments of work and kids definitely played a role in a prospect’s blue-chip status.
“We had guys say, ‘We want to support the league, and we’ll make it when we can.’,” McDonald said. “So we definitely had guys who would have gone in the first round, go in the third round instead. At Gar bar [Garcia’s], we were hoping Swanny wouldn’t have shown up as much as he did, but he did,” McDonald joked.
All kidding aside, when McDonald put the word out last summer that he was starting a league of four teams, the overwhelming reception resulted in having to create an additional league of six more teams and eventually turning away more interested players.
McDonald estimates that about 75% of the players are from Eagle River with the remainder commuting in from Anchorage and JBER.
Before the ERHL, players were making the late-night drive to play in the Anchorage adult hockey leagues. Most of the current ERHL players “jumped ship” from Anchorage, as McDonald puts it.
“I know they took a hit when we started. We have almost 200 players in our league. There’s definitely a large number of players who defected if you want to put it that way and I think there will be more next year. Our reputation is good and I think our product is better,” McDonald said.
The players paid about $350 to join, which McDonald says is about half as much as what the Anchorage leagues charge.
Many players also wanted in on McDonald’s new league concept because they were tired of what they were getting from past league experiences – fights and misconduct on the ice, as McDonald explains.
“We took it really seriously, and I think the players appreciated that. And we were able to avoid the shenanigans associated with beer leagues. Overall it was the tone we set from the start. Steve and myself and Pat Zmuda, and the entire board – our presence at the games was important. We didn’t just take their money and say, ‘See you later.’ Our biggest platform was the way we treated officials and players, the way we wanted to act at games and avoid the most common pitfalls from other beer leagues – guys wanting to fight, guys wanting to yell at other officials. All that nonsense is why most guys don’t want to play beer league and why most refs don’t want to ref beer league. And not to say we are perfect, we had a couple of instances this year. But it’s the tone and the way we handled it. USA Hockey handed out their suspensions, and we handed out our suspensions. The game of hockey is very competitive and full of passion. It’s going to happen. It’s how we reacted and how we handled it. We are squeaky clean in the big picture. We had three misconducts over the whole season, and there are leagues that have six, seven, eight times more than we have. Players did a decent job controlling their emotions,” McDonald said.
With the season freshly over and managers finally able to take it all in and bask in the glow of a great year, one of the biggest recurring themes McDonald heard back from players was how fun it was.
“Guys who have played beer league their entire life said this was the best experience,” McDonald said. “One guy said he played beer league for 30 years and this was the best time he ever had. The extra special attention and care we took, I didn’t really know how far our efforts went it until we talked to them.”
The ERHL has also had a positive impact on the community businesses and the charity work it has done. The most visible aspect being the six major business sponsors screen printed on the team sweaters. Businesses also had space available to do a “tailgate” sponsorship on the backside of the jerseys.
“We already have businesses wanting to sign up and sponsor us for next year. That was the other part of our plan, to partner with local businesses and support local business. In the AAA, everyone was in an establishment after the game where they could have an adult beverage and it’s just a great partnership to give back to the community,” McDonald said.
Additional ERHL service-accolades include raising $1,200 to sponsor the equipment costs of two Mustang hockey players.
A mustache fundraiser (or “manly lip sweater” as McDonald called it in another funny video promo) raised $1,866 for the Movember Foundation. And the first-ever ERHL Delta Western Petroleum All-Star Game was a huge success, benefiting Special Olympics Alaska by raising $2000, where many of their fans came out to support the game.
“We did a lot of good and that was always our plan from the beginning,” McDonald said.
The final on-ice event of the season will be the 3-on-3 Coach Mac Cup. The proceeds from this event go to the Coach Mac scholarship at Chugiak High School, which is a $1000 scholarship the McDonald family started in honor of their father, Harry McDonald.
For all the good the ERHL does off the ice, there’s a unique element of really good talent on the ice as well. Perhaps write it off to hockey being Alaska’s national past time, but there seems to be a higher than normal level of talent than what you would find in most relatively small towns of America. Headlining the group is Brian Swanson, NHL veteran, and NCAA Hobey Baker finalist. One pauses to appreciate the competitive history of Division-I talent like Pete McEnaney, Billy Bagron, Robert Monfore, McDonald, Jake Wilkens, Steve Ludwig, Eric Lawson and Rodney Wild. Matt Geurts, Andrew Duta, Michael McCurtain and Carl Hanson played Division III and various levels of professional hockey. In their demeanor and tenacity, it is easy to recognize these guys have played at a championship level. You never lose that side of you. Geurts is still playing professionally, rehabbing an injury this season with the ERHL. Always finding the humor in this fun, but competitive league, McDonald is hoping for an ERHL acknowledgment from Geurts’ continued success.
“I want that previous league name on paper, even if he just types it up for me,” McDonald joked.
Family plays a big role on the ERHL rosters also.
“We talk a lot about hockey culture and those lifelong relationships you have with hockey. We have dads playing with sons, brothers playing with brothers who maybe never played on a real team together. That’s the lifelong enjoyment of the sport,” McDonald said.
In total, there are two father and son combos, five sets of brothers playing, a triplet set of McCormick brothers and two husband and wife tandems. While McDonald was calling a game from the press box one night, it struck him how much family was in the crowd.
“I looked around and Ron and Lynn Swanson were watching Swanny. Jay Neilson’s mom and dad were watching Jay play. You got Rodney Wild’s mom and dad. The Thompsons always come to the game,” McDonald said. “They do come to watch their kids play, and their kids are in their 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s. That was cool. You bring them all back to the rink like they never left.”
The kids have fun at the games too running around with friends. The game takes on a different perspective when you hear the cheer, “Good job dad!”
McDonald, who skated for Michigan Tech, has two sons, Cameron and Sutton who played for Eagle River High School. This season they have been playing for the NAHL Kenai River, and both have a handful of Division-I offers. Cameron recently was drafted by the USHL Muskegon Lumberjacks for their playoff run this season. The achievement of McDonald’s sons fits into the hockey culture he and his friends promote.
“They’re motivated. I want them playing when they’re my age. In hockey you make life-long friends, it’s a tight group and you learn a lot,” McDonald said.
The future looks bright for the ERHL whose community-oriented planning has been the focus of everything, even down to the mountain and river logo which combined the blue and grey colors of Chugiak and Eagle River high schools. Changes for the future includes plans to create expansion teams and move some players down. There will be 12 teams next year- with four teams each of AAA, AA and a new single-A league.
“We are planning on growing the league a little bit. It will be a little more competitive at every level. Some players will move up. We will have a true double-A product. As a player it’s more fun to play against like talent,” McDonald said.
As for the favorite face of the ERHL, superhero mascot Earl might be in for some changes.
“There’s been talk of giving Earl a sidekick,” McDonald said. “We also want to redo his costume – Earl 2.0. Even Spiderman started off pretty raw and homemade. Then he got up to the real looking professional stuff.”
Nephi Tyler enjoys writing, fly fishing, classic movies, aviation history and all things outdoors. To reach Nephi, email: firstname.lastname@example.org