Should I stay or should I go?
That’s the question faced by many of Alaska’s top prep hockey players. Stay in Alaska and they don’t get the top competition available in the Lower 48. Go and they spend their high school years away from friends and family.
Kenai River Brown Bears forward Zach Krajnik decided to stay and thus far it is working out great for him.
Krajnik, 18, was born in Anchorage and spent all of his life, up through high school, in the same Eagle River house of parents, Richard and Shirley Krajnik.
After Krajnik’s Chugiak squad lost to West Anchorage in the 2016 state finals, the 5-foot-11, 165-pounder faced a decision.
He had several offers to go play in the Lower 48 for his senior year, but decided to stick with Chugiak linemates and fellow seniors Andrew Beckett and John Hammer.
“We had all been skating together since we were 5 on the same line,” Krajnik said. “We had great chemistry from always skating with the same two guys.
“I knew senior year could be it for them. I just wanted to be there to help them finish as strong as possible.”
A dream year ensued as the Mustangs won a second straight Cook Inlet Conference crown and then defeated South 3-0 for the fifth state title in school history.
The excellence of the Beckett-Krajnik-Hammer line was summed up in a tweet by Dimond coach Dennis Sorenson, by far the career leader in wins for coaches in Alaska high school hockey and also second on the career points list at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
Chugiak had just defeated Dimond 6-2 in last season’s Cook Inlet Conference semifinals. Krajnik’s line had dominated. He finished with a goal and five assists, while Beckett had a hat trick and Hammer had two goals and two assists.
The tweet: “If you’ve never heard of BKH line google KLM line……it will all be crystal clear!”
The KLM line refers to Russian forwards Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov and Sergei Makarov, commonly recognized as one of the best lines of all time.
The trio dominated the Soviet League while playing for CSKA Moscow and also won Olympic gold in 1984 and 1988 after losing the “Miracle on Ice” game in 1980. The group split up for the NHL in the 1990s.
So Krajnik had quite a group of memories as a reward for his senior year. But that guaranteed him nothing in the world of junior hockey.
Krajnik said both Beckett and Hammer are attending UAA but not playing hockey.
Despite playing at Chugiak, Krajnik had been paying special attention to what he would have to do to play at the next level.
He said his trips outside the state with the Alaska Oilers, like to the Mac’s Midget AAA World Invitational Tournament during Christmas break his senior year, gave him a good look at what it would take to make the United States Hockey League or North American Hockey League, the top two junior leagues in the United States.
“A big part of it is motivation,” Krajnik said. “I had to look at the players in the Lower 48 and see what they had, then I had to work to get to that level.”
Part of that involved hours in the gym. And part of that involved making peace with old rivals.
Fellow Kenai River Brown Bears players Cam McDonald and Sutton McDonald played for Eagle River, which is Chugiak’s biggest rival.
Cam is two years behind Krajnik in school, but Sutton is just one year behind Krajnik and the rivalry burned brightest there.
The programs had some famous battles while the three future Brown Bears were there, including Chugiak’s 4-1 victory over the Wolves in last season’s CIC championship game.
Krajnik thinks back to a game his junior year, when he still did not know Sutton very well.
“He was chirping me the whole time,” Krajnik said. “You could see he wanted to win so bad. The hate was there.”
As the two got to know each other the rivalry cooled. But when Sutton was taken in the seventh round of the NAHL draft and Krajnik went undrafted, that motivated Krajnik to get to the McDonald Center in Eagle River as many mornings as possible and skate with Sutton and Cam.
Krajnik had an in with the Brown Bears due to the hire of head coach Josh Petrich. Petrich had shown interest in Krajnik when Petrich was an assistant with the Iowa Wild Tier I 18U team last season.
“He started training camp with us and we didn’t think we had the right role at the beginning of the year for him,” Petrich said.
So Krajnik went to play for the Wild and had three goals and nine assists in 18 games.
“He went down there and tore it up,” Petrich said. “We had a hole to fill in the top six and we felt he was the right guy.”
Both Petrich and Krajnik agreed that his brief experience in Iowa was a key bridge between Chugiak and the Brown Bears.
“He’s a fast skater, but he hadn’t had to play at that type of pace,” Petrich said. “Zach is a confident player, but the key with Zach is confidence in his game.
“He’s come back a more confident player in his game.”
Krajnik was not the Bears’ property, and he had other NAHL teams courting him in Iowa, but his decision was easy.
“It’s home. Simple as that,” he said. “Other teams talked to me, but I wanted to be in Kenai.”
Krajnik billets with Scott and Tammy Oldenberg along with forward Michael Spethmann, so he has found a good fit for his love of the Alaska outdoors.
Since joining the team in late September, he has four goals and seven assists in 20 games.
“With continued hard work and effort he could be an elite player in this league,” Petrich said. “He’s got a high sense of hockey knowledge and he executes it.”
Krajnik has two years of junior eligibility left after this season. He has two things he would like to accomplish.
“I just want to get this organization turned around with Alaska kids playing a big part in it,” Krajnik said.
He also wants a Division I scholarship. That’s another area where staying home may have helped Krajnik, because his 3.8 grade-point average will be attractive to colleges.
“I had a lot of the same teachers through the years,” Krajnik said. “I got to know them well and they were able to push me back when they needed to.”