This Christmas, former Brown Bears forward Jacob Wolter was shocked to hear a team thought he belonged in the North American Hockey League.
At the beginning of this hockey season, Wolter, born and raised in Fairbanks, thought there was no way he would be signing with a top Division III hockey program at the end of the season.
And when the 5-foot-9 forward was a sophomore at Lathrop? He weighed 235 pounds and knew if he continued to be that weight he would be hanging up the skates after high school.
Yet last week, Jacob and his twin brother, Colton, made verbal commitments to attend the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. The Blugolds won the NCAA Division III title in 2013 and have been Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference champions the past two years.
Former Brown Bears defenseman Jake Davidson has committed to play there, and former Brown Bears forward Chris Nuth just completed his freshman season there.
Jacob, who graduated from Lathrop in 2012, credits parents Jordan Wolter and Judy Justice with the journey from being a 235-pound sophomore to signing with the Blugolds.
“Work ethic is something that was built in through my mom and dad,” Wolter said. “It was built in growing up.
“I wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t have work ethic on my side. Without work ethic, I wouldn’t be where I am.”
Wolter said his transformation began when he was a sophomore and realized if he didn’t change his ways, his last real competitive games would be for the Malemutes.
“I thought to myself, ‘There’s no way I can play hockey at the next level at this weight,’” said Wolter, whose dad played professionally for the Alaska Gold Kings of Fairbanks. “It all came down to how bad I didn’t want to hang ’em up after high school.
“Men’s league, a lot of games are pretty heated, but it’s never the same as playing in an actual game.”
The weight started to come off in earnest when Wolter was a senior. He credits trainer Eric Cooper with putting him on the right track.
But it was too little, too late to make good on his dream of making the Fairbanks Ice Dogs and playing with Colton, an identical twin who started playing for the Ice Dogs of the Big Dipper Ice Arena in the 2010-11 season.
“Growing up as a little kid and seeing the Dipper full on Fridays and Saturdays, I wanted to be an Ice Dog,” Wolter said. “I wanted it so bad.
“Unfortunately it didn’t work out. I went and tried out at a couple other NAHL camps in the summer of 2012, and that didn’t work out either.”
The NAHL is Tier II. Wolter was forced to find a home in Tier III hockey with the Helena (Montana) Bighorns of the American West Hockey League.
He doesn’t regret a minute of it.
“It gave me memories I’ll never forget,” he said. “It was the highlight of my life. I got to meet new people and see another part of the country.”
He also continued to get in better and better shape. He took a job working four-hour shifts with a concrete company in Montana.
“That was like working out in itself,” he said. “Two hours in on the first day, I was ready to quit and it was a four-hour shift.”
After getting off at noon, he would head to the rink in an effort to be the first one there. After skating for 2 or 2 1-2 hours, he would travel to the gym for more workouts.
The only time he did not hit the gym was on game day.
Even with all that work, and even with what he called the excellent coaching he received from Scott Cunningham, Wolter figured his NAHL ship had sailed.
He was at a Christmas party with Bighorns teammates playing video games and secret Santa when Cunningham called with news from Brown Bears head coach Geoff Beauparlant.
“At first, I thought he was calling for curfew and I was in trouble. Then I thought, ‘That doesn’t make sense, the whole team is here,’” Wolter said. “He asked how the party was going, then he threw the bombshell news that coach Geoff wanted to call me up.
“Honestly, I thought it was a joke. I thought he was pulling a fast one.”
Wolter remained convinced of that the next day in practice, when he again went to Cunningham and asked if he was playing a joke. Cunningham responded by calling Wolter into his office and telling him what it would take to be successful at the NAHL level.
Beauparlant, a former assistant with the Ice Dogs, had known Wolter since high school. The coach thought the Bears needed some more speed, grit and versatility up front, so he gave Wolter a shot.
The coach said the shot never would have come without Wolter’s dedication to fitness.
“He always had the talent and grit, and he has a scoring touch,” Beauparlant said. “But when you can’t get around the ice, it doesn’t matter how well you put the puck in the net if you can never physically get to the spot.”
Wolter played in 26 games for the Bears, with five goals and two assists, and a plus-3. He knew he was doing it for the Ice Dogs’ rival, but he also knew beggars can’t be choosers.
“What happened to me doesn’t happen in the last year of juniors,” said Wolter, whose billet parents were Ryan and Lauri Kapp of Soldotna, a family Wolter is effusive in praising. “I don’t want to be rude to anybody in Fairbanks, but I was pretty happy.”
Things got really interesting when the Bears played the Ice Dogs in the regular season and playoffs. During one game, Wolter tried to line up Ice Dogs forward Kyle Lee for a shoulder to shoulder hit and missed, going knee to knee and injuring Lee.
“When he went to the ice, I instantly knew it was bad,” Wolter said. “I was almost in tears because I didn’t grow up around the guy, but I knew of him.
“I have a lot of respect for the program. (Ice Dogs general manager) Rob Proffitt is like a father figure to me.”
But as the season progressed, something else strange was happening, something Wolter found almost as strange as facing off against the Ice Dogs.
He was contemplating a career at a good Division III school. He found out the Brown Bears’ goal to get players to college is anything but lip service. All four of the Bears’ aged-out players are going to college this year, as well as three that left junior hockey early for college.
“Without coach Geoff’s help I never would have gotten where I am,” Wolter said. “He was always calling schools and talking to them about me.
“He’s a players’ coach. That’s the only way to put it. He’s a great guy.”
So now Wolter faces a new challenge in Division III hockey, a place he never thought he would be at the beginning of the 2013-14 season.
“In true honesty, I never thought I stood a chance,” Wolter said. “I’m still a little nervous about it. It wouldn’t feel right if I wasn’t nervous. I don’t want things handed to me. I want to go to work.
“At one point, I thought I might go to school and hang ’em up and play (University of Alaska Fairbanks) intramural hockey. I didn’t know how to handle it once I showed up in Kenai and schools started calling.”
Bears notes: The 2014 Stanley Ford Brown Bear Classic is Sunday at the Kenai Golf Course. Tee time is 9 a.m. Participants can sign up at Kenai Golf Course, Stanley Ford or the Bears’ Den.