The Winters of an Alaskan Childhood


By Nate Tenopir, Sports Editor

The back of the Canadian five-dollar note depicts children taking part in several winter sports including, of course, hockey.  The image is accompanied by a quote from Roch Carrier’s short story The Hockey Sweater: “The winters of my childhood were long, long seasons.  We lived in three places – the school, the church and the skating rink – but our real life was on the skating rink.”

Whether you’re a kid in Canada or Alaska, life often imitates art, or vice versa.  Weekends, holidays and family events are planned around the hockey schedule of the player or players who lives in the household.

It’s not just a story we like to tell ourselves about our neighbors to the North.  New UNO assistant hockey coach Brian Renfrew was front and center to the experience of growing up in the world of hockey.  

Renfrew grew up in the dark, cold winters of Fairbanks, Alaska, embracing the sport at a very young age.  Since then, Renfrew has played juniors, competed in college at Western Michigan and saw four years of professional hockey, mostly in the ECHL.

As an assistant hockey coach, Renfrew spent a year back home with Alaska-Fairbanks, two years at Northern Michigan and the last eight at Michigan State.  Yet talking to Renfrew, one gets the sense that a lot of his success was shaped on the outdoor rinks of Fairbanks.

 “Life there is the same,” Renfrew said.  “The difference there is the winters, it’s just tough.  When you’re younger, you’re so busy you don’t even pay attention.”

When you’re a kid in Alaska, you really don’t pay any attention because you learn to skate, you pick up a stick and then everything changes.  Friends, family and members of the neighborhood spend every free minute at the rink defining life in terms of what happens on a 200 by 85 foot sheet of ice.

The youngest and the smallest have to learn to elevate their game enough to grab the attention of the oldest and the biggest.  And yet the oldest and the biggest have to learn how to get all the other ages, sizes and abilities to play on the same page.

Granted there are leagues that match up similar age ranges and skill sets but it’s difficult to replace the lessons learned at the neighborhood rinks.

In Fairbanks most elementary schools have a full ice rink on the playground.  When those are full, kids turn to either the Carlson Center or the Big Dipper that features three full sheets of ice.

 “We would play for hour after hour,” Renfrew said.  “My parents would drop me off and we would skate for three, four, five hours on the weekend.”

Often it starts right at home.  Though Renfrew said he didn’t grow up with a rink in his backyard, he started to learn to skate in a backyard that did.

One of the families in the neighborhood had a tennis court.  While it may have been intended for tennis, nine or more months of the year the court was flooded and used as a rink.

His dad helped keep the ice at his elementary school, both of his brothers played hockey and he and his youngest brother both played college hockey for the same coach at two different schools.  Hockey was and is a family affair.

Those kinds of experiences are what Renfrew feels makes hockey players into the down-to-earth type of athletes they have the reputation for.  He says growing up in Alaska you don’t have much of an opportunity to get a big ego. The people are humble, there’s no sense of entitlement.

 “It seems like most of the players now, the culture is they’re playing junior hockey.  They started at a young age with the community service and paying your dues and you learn at a young age…the culture of our sport,” Renfrew said.

 “Kids are leaving home, you’re leaving home to play junior hockey.  They’re leaving home to play travel hockey or midget hockey, and the sacrifices that go into it.

Renfrew was once one of those kids.  He first left home to play juniors at 16, returned in the summers and stayed long enough to graduate from high school.

From there he went on to a career as a goaltender at Western Michigan from 1991 to 1995.  Renfrew was a letter winner all four years, won 39 games in net and had a career goals against average of 3.17.

In 1993 he was named the Bronco’s Most Improved Player and won the WMU Dedication and Perseverance Award in 1995.  In his 11-year career as a college coach, Renfrew has coached five All-Americans, two Hobey Baker Award finalists, 13 players who were named first or second All-CCHA and five members of the All-CCHA rookie team.

In his latest position at Michigan State, Renfrew served as the team’s schedule and recruiting coordinator as well as worked with the goaltenders and defensemen.  Growing up in Alaska, playing junior hockey in the area and playing professionally on the East Coast makes Renfrew an attractive candidate for helping recruit at any school.

 “I played at the lower levels of minor hockey, I’ve been a lot of places and seem to have…what I feel is I can find a connection when it comes to recruiting,” Renfrew said.  “I can seem to find a connection with everybody.  There’s some tie, someone I played with, something.”

Could that be what Trev Alberts and Dean Blais had in mind when they hired Renfrew?  In a statement released at the announcement of the hiring, Blais praised Renfrew’s experience as a coach and expected him to make an impact right away.

That impact is expected both on the ice and in recruiting as well.  Renfrew’s recent successes with USHL players certainly had to stand out to a UNO program that has depended heavily on finding players in that league.

Twenty players on the current roster came to the Mavs from the USHL including standouts Alex Hudson, Terry Broadhurst, Ryan Walters and Matt Smith.  In his career, Renfrew has mentored some of the top goaltenders in college hockey including most recently, Drew Palmisano and Jeff Lerg both from the Omaha Lancers.

 “I’ve been fortunate [that] I’ve been given the ability to recruit in a lot of different areas,” Renfrew said.  “I’m excited about being here.  Is that what they were thinking when I was provided this opportunity?  I don’t know for sure.  There’s a lot to sell here.  I’m excited about the opportunity.”