When Conor Deal isn’t getting the dirty work done out on the hockey rink, he’s getting dirty — literally — out on the running and hiking trails of Alaska.
The 20-year-old, third-year forward for the Kenai River Brown Bears doesn’t show up much in the stats sheet as a prolific scorer — he has 11 points this season in 33 games and his season high is 18 points last season — but the Anchorage native cannot be underestimated for his ability to rally the troops when the game is at hand.
Deal, listed at 5-foot-11, 175 pounds, has six fighting majors this season, tying him for the North American Hockey League lead with a group of players. When the Brown Bears find themselves needing a boost, Deal can be counted on to pull the energy level up with a good ol’ fashioned hockey fight.
“If our team needs to be pumped up or if we need a momentum swing, or if a guy makes a cheap hit, I’ll step in and stand up for my team,” Deal said after a recent hockey practice. “I’m not a goon, I’m not going around and asking people to fight. But when the time comes and it needs to happen, that’s when I’m called upon to drop my gloves.”
Perhaps the determination to continue pushing under tough circumstances can be attributed to his summertime activity — mountain running.
To complement his hockey training, Deal competes in various mountain footraces in the summer, and the one he most prepares for is often called the “Super Bowl of Alaska Mountain Running,” the Mount Marathon race, held every July 4 in Seward.
The race is one of the oldest footraces in the country, and it attracts the elite athletes from around the state. Last summer, Bill Spencer’s 32-year-old legendary men’s course record was finally broken by Anchorage’s Eric Strabel and California’s Ricky Gates, with Strabel winning and owning the new mark of 42 minutes, 55 seconds.
In the weeks leading up to the race, Strabel put his nose to the grindstone and took his fitness level to new heights in preparation for the course record, leading workout groups up Bird Ridge, a mountain ridge overlooking Turnagain Arm. The group met every Sunday around noon, and Deal decided he would join in a couple times to work on his strength.
For a hockey player looking to build up his fitness level in Alaska, there was hardly another challenge like it.
“I was watching them, and (Strabel) was just crazy this year,” Deal said.
As Kenai River continues to fight for a playoff spot in the NAHL Midwest Division, Deal has proven himself to be a force on the defensive side of the ice, and a crucial element in penalty kills. Last week against Wenatchee (Wash.), Deal won 80 percent of faceoffs.
The puck drops tonight for a 7:30 p.m. tilt against the Minnesota Magicians at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex. The teams will face off again on Saturday night at 7:30 p.m.
Deal is the son of Tim and Denise Deal of Anchorage, and currently resides with host parent Rick VanHatten. Deal said it was his mother that initially sparked his interest in running the 3,022-foot behemoth in Seward.
“My mom got me into it, because all summer she would run mountains,” Deal said. “She said it would be good training for hockey so I kind of supplemented that in as my summer training and offseason for hockey, and it kind of grew on me.”
Growing up in Anchorage, Deal attended Polaris K-12 school, but competed for Service High School in cross-country running, hockey, track and field, and soccer.
When he entered the junior division of the Mount Marathon race in 2007, it initially was a test to see how he stacks up against some of the top young runners in the state.
“It started becoming sort of a family thing,” he said. “My brother, mom and dad all did it together, and my other brother took pictures. He thought we were crazy.”
Since he has graduated to the men’s race in 2011 when he turned 18, Deal realized that he could compete with some of the top athletes that toe the starting line on the streets of Seward every Independence Day.
Deal’s best performance came in 2012, when he finished 43rd in the men’s race in a time of 54 minutes, 42 seconds.
“That year I trained really hard,” he said. “I hit it really hard, and did Bird Ridge and did all the races before that. Usually Bird Ridge is the one I do every summer.”
Through the months of May and June, Deal hits the mountains three to four times a week, and made road trips down to Seward on scouting expeditions one or two weekends a month.
“Each week, I tried evening it out between skating and mountain running,” Deal said. “The mountain running really helped my endurance and quickness, which is what I was trying to work on, so I’d be running a lot of hills. I did Flattop a lot. I would do Flattop in the early afternoon and I would be skating at night. I tried to keep it 50-50 between the two.”
For those that are familiar with Mount Marathon, it is not for the faint of heart. The ascent begins with a scramble up a variety of routes.
Runners can either work their way up the edges of a cliff face, grabbing onto sharp rocks that could come loose at any time, or they can test their skills going up “the roots,” which feature an entanglement of crisscrossing tree roots on a near-vertical wall of mountain.
From there, the rest of the way up is a dirt path, which eventually opens up onto a treeless rocky path, which ends at the summit of race point. From there, racers begin the descent — a near free fall down the face of Mount Marathon — that involves sliding down snowfields, waterfalls and, once again, cliff faces.
Brown Bears head coach Geoff Beauparlant said the intense nature of Deal’s offseason activities seems to line up perfectly with how he competes on the ice.
“That doesn’t surprise me,” Beauparlant said. “He pushes his body to the limit, I know he gets a lot of enjoyment out of outdoor activities, he just stays in great shape. As a coach you can go to him on double shifts and know he has reserves left.
“The college team that gets him will be getting a solid all-around player.”
Deal, who admitted that his favorite part of Mount Marathon is the downhill, doesn’t prefer one style of offseason training to the other, but acknowledged that the two activities provide a potent combo.
“They’re both hard in different aspects,” Deal said. “Mountain running is a lot of the same thing. You’re doing a lot of the same stuff, where with hockey you’re doing a lot of different things each day. One day will be skills shooting, one day you’ll be skating, one day you’ll be doing side-to-side lateral movement and blocking shots.
“Hockey is a little more difficult because there’s a lot more going on, there’s a lot more to do in a game. Mountain running you’re just running up and back down and you’re done, that’s your training for the day.”
The Brown Bears have allowed 26 power-play goals on 153 attempts this season (an 83 percent kill rate which ranks 17th in the league), and Deal said the need to have him out there arose when Oliver David was head coach of the Brown Bears.
“I block a lot of shots, I’m always out there for penalty kills,” he said. “Coach Oliver David always put me out there for penalty kills and I’ve grown accustomed to it and started figuring things out.”
Deal also mentioned teammates Matt Rudin, Alec Butcher and Steven Butts as improving faceoff players for Kenai River.
Beauparlant usually puts Deal on the penalty kill in games, often pairing him with fellow forwards Jacob Wolter and Zach Zulkanycz. Beauparlant said his style of play is tactical and calculated, and he takes pride in his conditioning and work ethic.
A work ethic that is no doubt improved by pushing his physical and mental boundaries to the limit on the dirt trail.
Brown Bears notes: Tonight is Country Financial night, and the feature player is Eric Purcell. ... Saturday night is Coca-Cola, Coors Light and Kassik’s Brewery night, and Kris Oldham will be featured.