For many parents of Kenai River Brown Bears, sending their sons so far away to a remote location can be tough at first.
That’s not as much of a problem for Jeff and Lisa Spethmann, the parents of 19-year-old forward Michael Spethmann of St. Cloud, Minnesota.
Michael, his brothers David and Peter, and his sister, Mary, all have extensive experience with Les Voyageurs, a nonprofit, outdoor leadership program.
That means 30- to 40-day canoe trips heading north from Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, where the only thing friends and family get from voyagers each day is a dot on a map sent by a SPOT tracking device.
Michael did a 30-day trip the summer before his junior year and a 40-day trip after graduating from high school this summer.
Add in the fact that his speed and length, at 6-foot-3, 190 pounds, fit the big ice of the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex to a T, and the fact that he played three years on head coach Josh Petrich’s beloved Minnesota high school hockey scene, and Spethmann’s tender with the Brown Bears before this season was no surprise.
“He was a kid that stuck out to me because of our rink — his speed and the high pace he makes plays at is how I want the team to perform,” Petrich said. “He just kept coming back to me.
“When I was interviewing for this job, I kept writing his name down. If I got the job, he was a kid I wanted to go get.”
Petrich got the job May 20, and when he reached out to Spethmann, the coach found his commitment to the player immediately tested.
Spethmann told the coach he would miss team camps in the summer because he would be gone June 10 to July 30 on a 900-mile canoe trip that would take him from Yellowknife to the Arctic Ocean.
Petrich signed him anyway on May 27.
“I had a good inkling he’d fit in pretty well on the peninsula,” Petrich said. “He’s a very outdoorsy kid.”
Even by notoriously tough Alaska standards, Spethmann’s trip this summer is impressive. The first part of the trip was upstream until the party of eight reached the divide where all water started flowing toward the Arctic Ocean.
“It was a lot of portaging,” Spethmann said. “We had to portage two days to get to the divide, but it was worth it because we didn’t have to go upstream anymore.”
But downstream meant some whitewater that raged into the Class IV range with little room for error due to the remoteness of the journey and the frigid temperatures of the water.
“There were a couple of days we shot whitewater all day,” Spethmann said. “I enjoyed getting up each day and having all day to spend with my friends.”
What he didn’t enjoy were mosquitoes.
“It was terrible,” he said. “You couldn’t have any skin showing. The only time you’d get a break was in the tent at night.”
Spethmann said the swarms let up later in the trip as temperatures dipped into the upper 30s.
The end of the trip also provided one of those experiences that make it all worthwhile.
“At the end of the trip, we stayed up all night watching the sun setting on the Arctic Ocean,” Spethmann said. “The sun never went down. We just watched it the whole night.”
After the trip, Spethmann’s adjustment to living with billet parents Scott and Tammy Oldenberg of Kasilof was easy.
“I really like the outdoors a lot and so does my billet dad,” Spethmann said. “It worked out well.”
The two did a ton of fishing, mostly on the Kasilof River, this fall. Winter will bring trapping excursions and snowmachine trips to the mountains.
And, of course, hockey, where Spethmann is acquitting himself quite well so far. He has seven goals and five assists in 19 games.
Spethmann’s path to hockey success is typical for a Minnesota kid. He started skating at age 4 and played youth hockey until his sophomore year at St. Cloud Cathedral, when he joined the high school team.
Minnesota high school hockey has two divisions, and Spethmann played in the smaller division. His team won consolation at state as a junior. As a senior, he captained the Crusaders to third place.
He said the crowd for the third-place game was 7,000 or 8,000 at the Xcel Energy Center in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
“There’s a reason why it’s tough to get kids to leave Minnesota high school hockey to come play juniors,” said Petrich, who grew up in Elk River, Minnesota.
But Minnesota high school hockey has no problem developing talent for the next level, with the most recent example being Casey Mittelstadt getting drafted eighth overall by the Buffalo Sabres in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. Mittelstadt had just finished his career with Eden Prairie High School.
Spethmann had 14 goals and 14 assists in 20 games for Cathedral as a junior, then increased those numbers to 22 goals and 33 assists in 24 games as a senior.
Even with those numbers, Spethmann has had to adjust to the North American Hockey League.
“People take away time a lot faster,” he said. “You have to have your head up and decide a lot quicker.”
Petrich said Spethmann must work on his poise with the puck, and on taking different angles to the puck now that his speed, relatively, is not as great.
Spethmann plans to do all those things to pursue his dream of playing Division I hockey, but he’s also interested in guiding for Les Voyageurs through his college years.
He learned from participating in sports like cross-country and track in high school that all hockey, all of the time, isn’t necessarily the way to gain maximum improvement.
“When I take little breaks and come back, it makes me want to play more,” Spethmann said.
The forward has already told his coach he may be missing more camps this summer. That hasn’t changed Petrich’s assessment of Spethmann.
“He’s a quiet, hard-working, blue-collar, down-to-earth kid,” Petrich said. “If you were to put him in this community and take all his Brown Bear gear away, I don’t think anyone would know he’s not from here.”