Kenai Central High School's first hockey team, which took to the ice in 1977, included (back row) Brian Gabriel, Toshi Nishikawa, Bruce Gabriel, Mike Boulette, Ron Haeg, Vince Redford, Dave McQuade, Matt Beaudry (captain), coach Greg Gabriel Sr., (front row) Jim McIlhargey, Bruce Van Bagen, Tony Esping, Tom Kilfoyle, Ron Wylie, Greg Gabriel and Jeff Kilfoyle. Assisant coach Morris Redford is not pictured.
Kenai Central High School yearbo
It wasn't uphill -- at least not both ways.
Listening to those members of Kenai Central High School's first hockey team talk, one gets the picture that 30 years ago, high school hockey was a lesson in self-reliance.
"The rink was at the junior high school," said Mike Boulette, a 1979 KCHS graduate.
The Kardinals, with Rick Connolly in goal, take on the West Valley Wolfpack at Deutschlander Arena in Kenai on Jan. 20, 1979.
Before practice and games, Boulette said, the squad would dress in the high school locker room. Skate guards were slipped on over skate blades, then it was a hike across the football field to the rink, which was where the Kenai Middle School tennis courts now stand.
Of course, if the team wanted ice to skate on, they took care of that, too.
"If we wanted ice, we flooded it," said Jim Stenga, who played two seasons at Kenai before moving over to Soldotna High School when it opened in 1981.
The 1978-79 "Scooter" line, which notched 80 goals and 63 assists, included Rich Redford, Erick Ellstrom and Brian Gabriel.
Boulette, Stenga, and dozens of other Kenai Central skaters and coaches, past and present, gathered earlier this month to celebrate 30 years of Kardinals hockey. The Kenai program continues to flourish and grow, and today's skaters some of whom may never have played on an outdoor, uncovered rink certainly owe a debt of gratitude to the players who pioneered hockey on the central peninsula.
Seniors on the 1984 varsity Kenai squad yuk it up.
Boulette said he thought it was pretty cool when the hockey rink was moved to its current location next to the high school, just in time for his senior season.
"Our fans consisted of Mom and Dad, and maybe a dog ... We thought we were styling on our our rink pretty cool," Boulette said. "My mom used to say, 'Why don't you play something inside.'"
Practices in those days started with manual labor: if any snow had fallen, the ice would need to be shoveled off. Boulette said that if snowed during the game, digging for a puck in the corner where snow collected took on a more literal meaning.
"Outdoor ice builds character," Stenga said.
"Yeah, and we were all characters back then," quipped Boulette.
In addition to battling the other team, players also battled the elements. Jeff Kilfoyle, a player on the 1977 team, said playing in 35 below zero temperatures at Kenny Lake was hard to forget. Before rinks had warming huts, players headed to a running school bus to warm up between periods. Kilfoyle, a goaltender, said he sometimes needed to warm up more frequently than that.
"At Kenny Lake, every five minutes they blew the whistle so the goalies could swap out," he said.
The early Kenai hockey squads traveled all over the state for games, up to Fairbanks as well as to places like Kenny Lake and Glennallen. Even in Anchorage and Wasilla, Kilfoyle said high school teams were skating on outdoor rinks.
"We never played inside. I don't think any of the high school teams played inside at that time," Kilfoyle said.
That first Kenai team also had an international flavor, according to Kilfoyle.
"We had a Japanese foreign exchange student show up and teach us all how to skate," Kilfoyle said.
Another character-defining aspect of hockey in the late 70s was the equipment players wore - rudimentary, by today's standards.
"That was what we wore those 'Jason' hockey masks," Kilfoyle said, eyeing an old yearbook with a photo of himself sporting a large bruise around his eye and cheek. "I still have that mask somewhere. My kids wore it for Halloween a couple years ago."
Other former players and coaches noted the progression of gear in yearbook photos. Facemasks weren't required gear for the first couple years the team played, and the first versions didn't wrap all the way under the chin, leaving many players with telltale hockey scars there.
Hockey on the Kenai Peninsula began to grow in the 1980s as youth programs blossomed and the Soldotna Sports Center opened.
"That was my last year '84 that was nice," said Ricky Swanson. "At the time, that was a big deal. It was only the second sheet of Olympic-sized ice in the U.S. Lake Placid and Alaska."
Swanson said the bigger surface boosted Kenai's success as the Kardinals put together lines of lightning-quick skaters. His was known as the "kamikaze line," he said.
"We were 11-1 in our conference one year. We had a couple really good years in a row. It was kind of a launching board for really getting high school hockey going."
Also fueling the program, Swanson said, was having another team just down the road to play.
"We had the Kenai-SoHi rivalry. Ours was the first full four years of the rivalry," Swanson said.
Of course, Swanson said he was fond of the outdoor rink, and still makes a point of getting outside to skate every now and then.
In one sense, Kenai hockey has come full circle. When the Kenai Multipurpose Facility was completed, the team started practicing there. Junior Varsity games also are played in the rink, which, while it is enclosed on the sides and has a roof, is still open to the elements on one side.
Brian Gabriel Jr. was on the Kenai squad when it started practicing outdoors once again. His father, Brian Gabriel Sr., was coaching the team at the time and also had been a player on some of the early Kenai teams the ones that played on outside ice. Gabriel Jr. said there always are stories about the way it used to be.
"All the time - especially when we started practicing at the outdoor rink in Kenai. If guys started to complain about it being cold, we'd hear about having to shovel the rink between periods," Gabriel Jr. said. "He's got a lot of old war stories he likes to share."
That connection between generations of players is the other way in which the program has come full circle. The team's first coach was Gabe Gabriel, who has now watched his children and grandchildren play hockey at Kenai Central. More than a few players with current Kenai Central hockey jackets poked through yearbooks looking for pictures of dads current head coach Nate Kiel included in their glory days.
"I was just looking at pictures of Dad and Gramps. It's pretty neat to see how far the program's come," said Gabriel Jr.
"Some really dedicate dads really put hockey on the map on the Kenai Peninsula," Kilfoyle said.
Gabe Gabriel said that first team had 12 or 14 players. The school didn't supply the coach at first, and travel was an altogether different matter.
"Coaches didn't get paid, and when we went up to Fairbanks, Twin Cities Electric supplied the van," he said. "It was a kick. It was a lot of fun.
"Hockey was just taking off in Fairbanks. They had referees that couldn't skate."
Fairbanks had another draw in the early '80s: the Gold Kings, a senior men's amateur team that later became the Colorado Gold Kings of the WCHL.
"One thing we always did when we went to Fairbanks was watch the Gold Kings," said Boulette.
Thirty years of hockey in Kenai also has created 30 years of extended family. Johnny Johnson never laced up skates for Kenai, but his son Cory graduated in 2006 and is now playing junior hockey. Jonhson said he missed some of the time spent at the rink.
"When your kids start playing, you meet all these people. You spend Christmas and Thanksgiving with them all through the years. It's good to see everyone," Johnson said. "I miss it. (My son's) in Canada. I don't get to watch him play, except in the Internet, so I sneak down here to watch a game every once in a while."
Players feel the familial bond too.
"It's good having ties, coming back and feeling like you were part of something," said Ross Baldwin, a 2001 Kenai graduate now in medical school at the University of Washington.
That bond is what makes playing special when compared to playing junior or collegiate hockey. Gabriel Jr., playing his senior season of NCAA Division I hockey after two years of junior hockey, said the battles with Soldotna particularly the ones in which Kenai was on the winning end stand out as highlights of his career.
"I think it's school pride that's what you're playing for," Gabriel Jr. said.
And with 30 years in the books, Kenai certainly has plenty to be proud of.
Will Morrow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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