In order to get to one of the top levels of junior hockey in the United States, many of the Kenai River Brown Bears have taken advantage of careers spent on immaculate indoor ice in some of the most prestigious hockey programs in America.
As for Sam Carlson, who grew up in the tiny Southcentral town of Kenny Lake?
Well … Um … Would you like to know how cold it has to be for a puck to consistently break when it hits the goal pipe?
“If it’s 40 below, when you hit the post it’s almost for sure that you’re going to break a puck in half,” Carlson said. “When it got that cold, me and my brother would go to the rink and shoot pucks at the post and watch them break. It was fun.”
Some of the Brown Bears battled for some pretty prestigious youth crowns back in the day. But do they have a game story like this?
“We were supposed to call the game off at 20 below, but Delta traveled all the way and it was a 3 1/2-hour drive to Kenny Lake,” Carlson said. “The temperature had dropped to 29 below, so I think they got some hot air guns and warmed up the thermometer or something.
“They ended up calling it after two periods, even though there was a warming time halfway through each period. My mom gave me really bad circulation in my toes and fingers so I got frostbite.”
When it comes to junior hockey in the United States, there’s the 17-team Tier I United States Hockey League and then the 24-team Tier II North American Hockey League of the Brown Bears.
So how in the world did a player from a remote town of about 350 that serves as a gateway to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park make it this far?
Carlson, 19, is the youngest of seven kids. And when matched up against the achievements of his brothers and sisters, he hasn’t really accomplished anything that special athletically yet.
His oldest sister, now Sarah Hollingsworth, played Division I hockey for Boston College and was the captain for two years.
His second-oldest sister, now Hannah Steck, played Division III at Bethel University in Minnesota and also served as captain.
His oldest brother, Isaiah, played Division III at Gustavus Adolphus in Minnesota for two years and Salve Regina in Rhode Island for two years, where he also served as captain.
His twin sisters, Mary and Naomi, were good hockey players but had erg tests so high that both earned scholarship money to row at Syracuse.
Finally, Carlson’s youngest sister, Leah, is currently playing Division I hockey at Robert Morris University in Pennsylvania.
Sam Carlson chalks up all the athletic success to his parents, Reed and Jan Carlson. Sam said his parents originally met in Bemidji, Minnesota. The plan was then to go to Alaska for one year, but they ended up staying in Kenny Lake for about 25 years until moving back to Bemidji after Sam’s sophomore year.
Sam said it was common for his parents, especially his dad, to drive 6 1/2 hours to Fairbanks or five hours to Anchorage so his sons and daughters could get experience playing on Anchorage and Fairbanks hockey clubs.
“Obviously, the commitment my dad made to me is unreal,” Carlson said. “He taught me so much about how to give a kid something amazing.
“It’s hard to say how much I look up to my dad for how much he gave me.”
Carlson said his mother also gave him tons of support, and served as a driver sometimes, in addition to being the nicest lady he’s ever met.
Shawn Friendshuh is a 1986 graduate of Soldotna High School who has spent 23 years teaching and coaching hockey in Kenny Lake.
“I lived near them for so many years, and they are a very strong, faithful, tightknit family,” he said. “His mom is the most giving person I have ever seen.
“It takes a lot of traveling to do what they did, but they’ve kept family as the cornerstone of their life.”
Friendshuh said it should be remembered that the traveling the Carlsons did to give their sons and daughters extra opportunities came in addition to all the travel it takes to play for Kenny Lake.
“They’d even do it during the high school season,” Friendshuh said. “They’d play games Friday and Saturday, then a comp game on Sunday, then be back in school. They may have come in from Fairbanks, and their comp game would be in Anchorage.”
Friendshuh coached all seven Carlsons, and said they all have one thing in common.
“That whole family is some of the most coachable kids,” Friendshuh said. “They will do anything for their coaches.”
“Mystery, Alaska” is a 1999 film about a small Alaska town nestled at the foot of mountains and obsessed with hockey.
If there is a Mystery, Alaska, it is Kenny Lake, Alaska.
Friendshuh is wary of taking on this moniker because he wants to give credit to other small towns like Tri-Valley and Healy that play outdoor hockey.
But over the years Kenny Lake was the smallest school in Alaska with hockey until combining with Glennallen two years ago because the numbers at Kenny Lake’s school had gotten so small. Friendshuh said he can remember years where the high school had 45 kids and 16 were dressed to play hockey.
Rick Oatman, in the late 1970s, gets the most credit for starting the hockey culture in Kenny Lake, according to Friendshuh.
It is a culture in which the Carlsons, including Sam, flourished.
“We had two outdoor rinks at the school with chain-link fence, underneath the stars. It was a great place to grow up playing,” Carlson said.
While Carlson didn’t have the advantages of many hockey players, he made use of the one advantage he did have — free ice time.
“The Carlsons spent a lot of time on the ice on their own time,” Friendshuh said. “Sometimes in the morning it would be 25 below, and my classroom looks right over the rink, and there’s the Carlsons at 7:30 or 8 in the morning, dinging the puck off the post.”
Carlson said one of the bigger moments in his career remains when he got to play in the Saturday game in town, which drew the best players of all ages and genders to the rink.
When Carlson was a freshman, the Hawks did not make state. But as a sophomore, the squad beat Glennallen at the Big Dipper Ice Arena in Fairbanks — where Carlson would not play again until facing the Fairbanks Ice Dogs as a Brown Bear — to make small-schools state.
At state, Carlson scored four goals and had an assist as the Hawks defeated Delta Junction 5-4 for third place.
Minnesota state of mind
Serving as a senior stay-at-home defenseman, and never coming off the ice, on that third-place team was Sam’s sister, Leah.
With all the Carlsons now done with high school except for Sam, the family decided to move before Carlson’s junior year to help him further his career.
So Carlson enrolled at Bemidji High School and went from a K through 12 school to a high school of about 1,500 students.
“I was never afraid of the transition,” Carlson said. “I’m a big fan of raising kids in a small community. There’s a lot to be said for the type of character it builds.
“It’s a lot easier going from a small community to a bigger community.”
After all, at the tender age of 9 Carlson started running a trapline, a passion he would continue until he left Kenny Lake.
He got his first caribou as an eighth-grader and got his first moose as a freshman in high school.
And while the talent was a lot better in Minnesota high school hockey, at least he was on indoor ice.
Carlson said he wasn’t the best senior on his team last year, but he’s the only one who kept playing after high school.
“It’s not easy to play 60 games a season and move away from home,” Carlson said. “That really weeded a lot of guys out.
“I think a lot of that is the character of Alaska kids. We know more hardship and have given lots of sacrifice compared to kids who grew up playing for fun and playing because hockey was the easy thing to do.”
Becoming a Brown Bear
When Carlson was in Fairbanks as a young player and the Ice Dogs were in town, he would go to watch. He even remembers watching them play the Brown Bears.
Kenai River head coach Geoff Beauparlant said Carlson’s size and work ethic got him into the league which he once held in awe. As far as Carlson and Friendshuh know, no player from Kenny Lake has ever played junior hockey at as high of a level as the NAHL.
“He came to camp and he just worked and worked and worked,” Beauparlant said of the 6-foot-3, 205-pound Carlson. “As we were sitting in the war room, we just thought, ‘How can we not take a kid that works that hard?’”
Carlson has played in 41 games for the Bears, with two goals and two assists. But Beauparlant said Carlson’s work ethic and positive attitude don’t show up on the stat sheet.
“He’s jumped leaps and bounds from where he was in training camp to where he is today, and he’s earned every inch,” Beauparlant said.
Carlson lives with defenseman Austin Chavez with billet parents Lee and Sandra Berzanske of Kasilof.
Chavez comes from a different background, to put it lightly. He is from the Los Angeles area and said his high school has 3,000 kids.
“I give him credit for what he’s done,” Chavez said. “For me, I have personal trainers at home, a personal skating coach. There, they’re just playing hockey for fun.
“He’s very dedicated to the sport and obviously loves it because he is still playing today.”
Chavez said some of that enthusiasm has rubbed off on him as Carlson is known to drag his billet brother out for some pond hockey. The defenseman added that the same enthusiasm makes Carlson invaluable to the team as an energy player.
“I’ve learned a lot from the kid about life,” Chavez said. “I definitely see him as a longtime friend. He’s definitely one of those kids I want to stay in touch with. He’s humble and does his job.
“He’s definitely one of my favorites on the team, that’s for sure.”
In January, things came full circle for Carlson when he hosted the Copper River Bantams in the Brown Bears locker room.
“We’re so small we’re like a big family in this community,” Friendshuh said. “All these kids knew Sam, and Sam is one of those kids that loved helping everybody out when he was in high school.
“Sam’s got a huge heart for little kids, and I think walking in and seeing Sam with his name tag in the locker room like that, that will probably be one of the turning points for these kids to push themselves.”
Beauparlant said the Brown Bears also appreciate Carlson’s respect for community.
“We have a lot of guys work in the community, but he’s one of the first to volunteer for everything that comes up,” the coach said.
Carlson’s goal is to play Division I hockey after finishing his junior career next season.
“He’s 6-3, 210, with good grades and he’s continuously improving, but he knows he needs to work on skating to give himself a chance to play Division I,” Beauparlant said. “He’s already talked about hiring a skating coach from the time the season ends through the summer.”
While Beauparlant said Carlson has a ways to go to play Division I, he said Carlson’s size and work ethic gives him a chance.
Friendshuh also gives Carlson a chance after watching how much Carlson’s brother, Isaiah, improved after being exposed to higher levels of hockey. The coach said Sam has the passion for hockey that makes a lot possible.
“Since we had such a small team, I had to do a lot of conditioning,” Friendshuh said. “After I just killed them they would still go out and scrimmage.
“You couldn’t burn Sam out on hockey. It was just incredible.”
Carlson said the amount of time the Brown Bears coaches have put into helping him and the team is tremendous. He said he’ll do his best to make it pay off.
“Hopefully I’ll land a spot with a Division I team, but if that doesn’t work out I’ll keep playing the game I love,” he said. “Always aim for the stars until they’re out of reach, right? I’ll just go for the highest level I can play.”