This year for Christmas, Kenai River Brown Bears forward Alex Jackstadt got his game back.
After an offseason and early part of the season spent in transition, Jackstadt, a 5-foot-7, 155-pound 20-year-old, made his much anticipated return to the Brown Bears on Oct. 24, but put up just six points in 18 games and was a minus-26.
Then came Christmas, and a resurgence.
After the holiday break, Jackstadt has put up 15 points in 19 games. Even more impressive, he is a minus-1 during that time, while the Bears have been outscored by 47 goals over the same period.
Jackstadt said it took the two weeks of Christmas to settle down after all that had happened to him in the offseason and early season.
In the 2013-14 season, Jackstadt played for the Fargo (North Dakota) Force of the Tier I United States Hockey League. He played well enough to earn a scholarship to the University of Alaska Anchorage, but USHL teams can have only four 20-year-olds on the roster.
With a bunch of players set to turn 20 on the team, Jackstadt knew he’d have to find another league when UAA decided it didn’t want him to start playing until the 2015-16 season.
Jackstadt ended up with the Powell River Kings in Powell River, British Columbia, but was traded to Kenai River after just six games there.
“When I was traded from Powell River back to Kenai, I didn’t get a chance to see my family and connect with them,” said Jackstadt, who grew up in Anchorage, but whose parents, Stephen and Lillian Jackstadt, have since moved to San Diego. “I drove back all by myself.
“Over the break, I got a chance to see my family, reconnect with them, and settle down and let myself know everything will be OK. I came back a little more confident, and in a little better shape.”
Jackstadt said the return of Kenai’s Zack Zulkanycz from the USHL right after the break also helped. The two started playing together the summer before their eighth-grade years.
“It was nice to have a familiar face and friend,” said Jackstadt, who stays with Zack’s mother and father, Lisa and Dan Zulkanycz. “It really felt like old times again.”
Part of those old times were the days before the 2012-13 season, when Zulkanycz had graduated for Kenai Central and Jackstadt had graduated from East High in Anchorage and both were just trying to make the Brown Bears.
“We’ve been doing this together since Day 1,” Zulkanycz said. “The year we both made the team as rookies, on the ride I would tell him, ‘We’re going to take it one day at a time and we’re in this together.’”
Both made the team and got to experience the rapid rise of the Bears at the end of the season, when the Bears collected 30 points in their last 23 games.
Jackstadt was a big part of that, notching 18 points in the last 19 games.
He then had one of the most important goals in franchise history, tallying on the power play in Game 2 for the game-winner as the Bears beat the Fairbanks Ice Dogs 2-1 in Fairbanks for Kenai River’s first-ever playoff victory.
Jackstadt would go on to have three points as the Bears lost the series in five tight games.
Kenai River head coach Geoff Beauparlant got a chance to watch Jackstadt’s rise that season as a Fairbanks assistant.
“I just remember that tenacity, that when he’s moving his feet he’s a good hockey player,” Beauparlant said. “Most players are, but him even more so.
“I just remember him putting on a lot of pressure and cutting down the time and space available. He was able to create a lot of turnovers and make things happen.”
Zulkanycz said Jackstadt didn’t even monitor the USHL draft that summer, so Zulkanycz had to call his teammate and let him know he’d been drafted by the Force.
Jackstadt had four goals and 10 assists in 58 games for the Force.
“The first game I played with Fargo was against Sioux City and the whole team was (Division I) committed — all 20 guys playing,” Jackstadt said. “I thought, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I’m playing against these kind of teams.’”
Jackstadt said his linemate was Mike Babcock, the son of the Detroit Red Wings coach. He said the league was a little out of his comfort zone, but he worked hard every day to make sure he stuck.
And sure, he did his fair share of wondering what it would have been like to stay with the Brown Bears as his Anchorage childhood friend, Alec Butcher, skated his way to NAHL MVP honors.
“Of course. We joked about it all the time,” Zulkanycz said. “What if we had Jackstadt, Butcher and Albin (Karlsson) on a line? I bet if Butcher had Jacksy passing him the puck, they both would have led the league. They would have been co-winners of the MVP.”
But Jackstadt said he obviously doesn’t regret his decision to play at the highest level he could. Division I commitments come easier at the USHL level, and that allowed Jackstadt to fulfill a childhood dream and commit to UAA.
“Growing up my learn to skate was at UAA,” Jackstadt said. “My dad was a professor at UAA. Being a Seawolf was a dream from Day 1. I didn’t think it was possible.”
The only snag was UAA wasn’t quite ready for Jackstadt this season.
“The coaching staff made that decision,” Jackstadt said. “I, of course, wanted to go in. But playing a couple more years never hurts.”
The problem came when Jackstadt tried to find a fit for this year. Fargo was out, so he tried Powell River.
He liked his coaches and billet family, but he said he was jumping from line to line and even getting scratched for some games. Plus, league rules actually kept Jackstadt from using the stick he liked.
“When they said I was getting traded back to Kenai, I was pretty relieved,” Jackstadt said.
But he still had plenty of adjusting to do. Jackstadt’s Brown Bears coach in 2012-13, Oliver David, had moved to the USHL and Beauparlant had taken over. With Zulkanycz still in the USHL, Jackstadt was without any of his old teammates.
Beauparlant was also expecting Jackstadt to play a different role than he had in the USHL and BCHL.
“When he came back he was letting go of the puck too soon,” Beauparlant said. “He kind of got in a rut where all he was doing was dump and chase, where we wanted him to keep the puck and make plays.”
But now Beauparlant said Jackstadt is back to playing at the level of a player with a Division I commitment.
“I’ve kind of gone full circle, from the NAHL to the USHL to the BCHL and back here,” Jackstadt said. “It’s been a good and fun journey, and it’s been a blessing to end up back here and get a chance to play in Anchorage.
“I couldn’t be happier and I hope the team figures something out.”
The Bears are 3-21-1 in their last 25 games, but Beauparlant said Jackstadt has done his best to keep the locker room upbeat.
“Alex Jackstadt is the nicest kid I’ve ever met,” Zulkanycz said. “Anyone would second he’s the nicest kid in the world. He’s a kind-hearted, great kid, and I’m lucky to have him as a friend.”