Both Division I hockey programs in Alaska have a storied history of facing one another on the ice. This shouldn’t come as a surprise because of the proximity of these two teams compared to the other U.S. college hockey programs of the contiguous 48 states. However, up until recently, we at College Hockey History believed the rivalry between the Alaska Nanooks and Alaska Anchorage Seawolves began in 1979. That happens to be the year when Alaska Anchorage launched its varsity men’s hockey program. The teams from Fairbanks and Anchorage faced each other eight times during that 1979-80 season. But the history goes back a lot further than that. We recently discovered photos of these schools playing one another on the ice in 1935.
The University of Alaska Fairbanks’ first year of hockey was 1925. The program played that one season and then discontinued hockey until 1932. At the time, the team was referred to as the Alaska Polar Bears or U of A Polar Bears. The school changed its nickname to the Nanooks in 1963. Nanook is a derivation of nanuq, which is the Inupiaq word for polar bear. On the other side, the University of Alaska Anchorage formally began its varsity hockey program in 1979 within Division II and made the leap to Division I in 1984. Prior to 1979, the school must have put together an informal team without varsity status many decades prior.
The featured photo is from 1935 and is a hockey game between Anchorage and Fairbanks. It appears to be played on the frozen Chena River according to the description of the photograph. The Northern Commercial Company building is shown on the shore in the background. The Cushman Street Bridge is out of frame to the left. Spectators would line up on the bridge during big games. This is presumably photo evidence of the first game played between these two schools as another photo states that the 1935 team was the first hockey team organized by Alaska Anchorage.
Flash forward eighty-seven years and these two programs will play one another at the Carlson Center this weekend – less than two miles away from that first meeting on the river. These two hockey programs have gone through a lot of changes since 1935. At this point, both teams participate as independents within Division I. It’s Alaska Anchorage’s first season back on the ice since the 2019-20 season. In fact, the Nanooks and Seawolves last played one another February 29, 2020; mere days before COVID-19 shut down that season. The teams will begin play for the Governor’s Cup this weekend. This is an award given to the winner of the most games between the two hockey programs throughout each season. While the schools formally began the rivalry on the ice in 1979 and started the Governor’s Cup in 1994, these upcoming games will be the renewal of a rivalry that began nearly 90 years ago.
Photo Credit: Culhane family photographs, Archives and Special Collections, Consortium Library, University of Alaska Anchorage.