In October 2009, Soldotna’s Art Karvonen went to a Kenai River Brown Bears game planning to sit in the stands and watch, just like any fan.
Shortly into the game, Karvonen would be on the path to becoming one of the most famous fans in the North American Hockey League.
Walking into the Soldotna Sports Center, Karvonen, now 42, wasn’t a casual observer. He nurtured a love for hockey growing up on the Upper Peninsula in Michigan and eventually playing semipro hockey overseas. He still plays with the Rusty Blades.
Karvonen also had always felt a strong pull from the Junior A hockey organization, starting when his wife, Lori, won the contest for naming the mascot during the Bears’ first season in 2007-08. Lori’s moniker? Grizz.
Before the 2009-10 season, Karvonen asked to house a player and ended up housing three different players for various lengths of time that season.
Which brings us to October 2009.
“In the early beginning of the Brown Bears, one of the big challenges was getting enough volunteers to make the games work,” Karvonen said. “They asked me if I’d please work the penalty box.”
Karvonen was all for getting a front-row seat to the action, and shortly into the game, he saw the Bears score a goal from the prime location of the home-team penalty box.
At which point a frozen, spawned-out humpy came hurtling out of the stands and slid to a halt on the ice.
“The refs weren’t from around here,” Karvonen said. “They would not go pick it up.
“They pointed at me and told me, ‘Go get it.’ I picked it up, everybody went crazy, and it developed from there.”
A word about the humpy.
According to Vince Redford, chairman of the board for the defunct Peninsula Chinooks (1998-2000) and coach of the defunct Peninsula Hellfighters (1997-1998), humpies have been getting thrown on the ice going back to the days of the Chinooks.
Since the throwing of the fish should technically be a penalty and could technically result in fines from the league, Redford professed ignorance as to who actually throws the fish on the ice.
While not mentioning the scofflaw, Redford did say Karvonen is the good guy in the scenario.
“He’s just cleaning up the mess,” he said with a chuckle. “And maybe holding the salmon over his head so the crowd cheers a little.”
And it is a mess. Said Karvonen of the fish, which are recycled from game to game, “They are the nastiest pinks we can find — big, ugly humpies for throwing. That gives them a little more character.”
Since his first cleanup, Karvonen has never missed a game and has dutifully cleared the ice of fish after the Bears’ first goal.
His reputation as the guy who holds a salmon triumphantly overhead to the giddy roar of the crowd has quickly spread around the league.
“At the beginning of the game I had to tell (the referees) what to expect,” he said. “I only had to do that the first year.
“Now it’s a huge tradition and a huge hit throughout the league.”
When Karvonen watches Bears away games on fasthockey.com, he said announcers from other teams will talk about the tradition.
“When there are new refs, they come up and ask me about it,” Karvonen said.
He said opposing players have asked him if they are having sushi after the game, but he said for the most part he gets the impression the opposition doesn’t appreciate the celebration.
The reputation of the Fish Man, as a jersey Karvonen received this year proudly says on the back, doesn’t stop at U.S. borders.
Albin Karlsson, a forward from Sweden staying with Karvonen this season, knew about the tradition before arriving in Alaska.
“They told me a little about that before I came here,” Karlsson said. “I was pretty excited.”
Captain Zac Lazzaro said players come to the Bears from midget hockey, where a few friends and family dot the stands. Crowd-pleasing traditions are a welcome change from a smattering of applause after a midget goal.
“It’s one of those things that makes junior hockey special,” Lazzaro said. “Fun traditions, especially one as cool as that, get everybody excited.
“Tradition is still being built here, but that’s a good foundation to have.”
Karvonen’s contribution to the organization doesn’t stop with piscatorial patrol.
Lori is on the bench for all home games, serving as a trainer. And the Karvonens have hosted three players in each of the past four years.
“I do it for selfish reasons,” said Karvonen, who retired from the Air Force, moved to the Peninsula seven years ago, and now works as an account manager for Lynden Transport. “I really enjoy having the guys around. It’s a lot of fun.
“It makes me feel young again.”
When general manager Nate Kiel got involved with the Brown Bears, he said he wanted to make the team a winter version of the Peninsula Oilers.
The Oilers are famous for giving players a great host family experience, and Kiel said billet parents like the Karvonens are giving the Brown Bears the same reputation.
“The Oilers are the Peninsula’s team in the summer,” Kiel said. “They have a lot of tradition and a great base of support.
“They have a strong billet contingent and that’s also what we are aiming to do.”
Coach Oliver David said billet families like the Karvonens make recruiting easier.
“It’s very important to promote the fact that our billet houses are stable, or even better than stable,” David said. “It’s fun to live here. Everything is in close proximity. Most billet houses are within 10 minutes of the rink.”
The Karvonens’ specialty is housing foreign players. They lodged Sweden’s Johan Skinnars in 2009-10, Sweden’s Erik Persson and Mathias Dahlstrom in 2010-11, Czech Republic’s Marek Hemsky in 2011-12 and Karlsson and Gustaf Johansson of Sweden this season.
“I’ve definitely been learning Swedish,” Karvonen said.
His family is from Finland, coming to the U.S. in the 1960s, and Karvonen can understand Finnish, but he said Swedish is totally different. Karlsson said that Karvonen’s Swedish could still use some work.
“I know what it is like in Scandinavia and I think that makes adjusting to the U.S. easier,” said Karvonen, who has traveled to Finland three times.
Karlsson, a 19-year-old living halfway around the world from home, said Karvonen is a great guy, and among his fondest memories is his salmon fishing trip with Karvonen last August.
“I think it’s been an amazing year,” Karlsson said. “I don’t think I could have had a better billet.”
Karvonen said he keeps in touch with former players.
“I’ve learned a lot and made a lot of good friends throughout the world,” he said. “Some of my closest friends live in Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic.
“This hockey team has changed my life. I absolutely mean it.”
Karvonen said he is happy to be involved in trying to help players get college scholarships. Karlsson signed a Division I scholarship with Niagara University at the start of the season.
“The Brown Bears organization is probably one of the highest class organizations there is in the NAHL,” Karvonen said. “They take unbelievable pride in taking care of kids, placing them with good billet families and giving them a good opportunity to get to college.”
And Karvonen also said the Bears serve a purpose in the community.
“They really bring the community together,” Karvonen said. “I can’t walk through Fred Meyer without 10 people asking me about the team.”
As for high-fives or handshakes? Probably not if they are true Bears fans. They know where those hands have been.