Kenai River Brown Bears defenseman Jake Hartje came here for hockey experience. He ended up getting a bit of the Alaska experience as well.
Hartje, 19, committed to play hockey at Division I Harvard as a senior at Detroit Country Day School.
Searching for more hockey experience before he entered college, Hartje made the defending Robertson Cup champion Minnesota Wilderness of the North American Hockey League at the beginning of this season.
“Minnesota was a great place to be,” the 6-foot, 172-pounder said. “I loved the team and coaching staff, but I wanted to play more minutes.
“I knew that there was a chance to play more and make more of a difference on the ice.”
On Dec. 1, Hartje was traded from the Wilderness to the Brown Bears. Moving to a team with just one victory located on the remote central Kenai Peninsula did not faze him. In fact, he saw opportunity on both fronts.
When Hartje was just a couple of years old, his uncle, Tim Hartje, moved to Alaska due to his duties in the Air Force and ended up getting stationed in Fairbanks for three years and Anchorage for three years.
Jake Hartje still remembers visiting Alaska as a youngster and taking the train from Anchorage to Seward while playing with little toy trains himself.
When Tim Hartje found out his nephew would be playing in Alaska, he sent a 1,000-word email of things that Jake had to do while he’s here.
Jake admits he hasn’t gotten deep on the list yet, but he will stay after the season for a week or so with his billet parents, Art and Lori Karvonen of Sterling, to check off a few more items.
“Going places like Homer and Seward and hiking in the mountains is awesome,” Hartje said. “It’s not something everyone gets to experience.”
Brown Bears head coach Jeff Worlton has said he will use the uniqueness of Alaska as a recruiting tool. Hartje is all for the idea.
“It’s a real privilege to play up here,” he said. “As they try and get players to come up here, the chance to live in Alaska is a big selling point.”
On the ice, Hartje also has been happy with the way things are progressing in Alaska. He has appeared in 30 games for the Bears, notching three goals and eight assists. Hartje also had four assists in 13 games for the Wilderness.
He said he found much more talent than he was expecting on a one-win team, and found an inclusive and welcoming locker room. Hartje said he’s talked to friends around the league and knows locker rooms are not always so welcoming.
Of course, his time here hasn’t been without bumps in the road. In his first series with the Bears, he was taken into boards from behind in a 6-2 loss to the Fairbanks Ice Dogs on Dec. 6.
After the hit, Hartje lay motionless on the ice for 12 minutes before being taken to Central Peninsula Hospital by Central Emergency Services personnel.
“I felt all right a few minutes after the hit,” Hartje said. “They were just taking precautions to make sure everything was all right.”
Hartje said he did not even have a concussion and was back at practice the next day.
On Jan. 9, the Bears defeated the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (Pennsylvania) Knights for their second victory of the year. After the game, head coach Geoff Beauparlant was relieved of his duties.
“Coaching changes are always tough on everybody,” Hartje said. “The old coach believed in me, he’s the one who brought me in, so it was tough to see him go.”
At the same time, Hartje has seen constant improvement under Worlton, and he’s more than happy to get daily skills sessions from the former professional defenseman.
“He’s just got to keep getting better every day,” Worlton said. “Just like any other player, he has to make sure he’s in the weight room.
“He has to keep working on his craft, just like anybody else.”
All this has left Hartje with a tough decision to make after the season concludes.
He could return to an improving Kenai River club for his final season of junior eligibility and check a few more Alaska items off his list, or he could enroll at Harvard in the fall and play hockey.
Hartje’s father, Tod, played at Harvard, helped win the school’s lone national title in 1989, then played in the NHL for a few years. At Harvard, he also met Hartje’s mother, Nicole, who played tennis for the Crimson.
Jake is the oldest child, and those athletic traits also show in younger siblings Sasha, Elle and Clay. All are accomplished hockey players, while Sasha also is a very good tennis player.
“I won’t even deal with what I’m doing next season until the season is over,” Hartje said. “It will be an interesting conversation. I’m fortunate to have very good options.”