Alaskan quartet bring local flavor to Kenai River squad

By Tom Schreier

Zack Zulkanycz - Kenai River Brown Bears

Photo: Kenai River Brown Bears forward Zack Zulkanycz is one of five players on the Brown Bears roster that hail from the home team's state of Alaska (courtesy of the NAHL)

Alex Jackstadt had tears in his eyes.

“I…I don’t know if I can do this,” he muttered.

His team, the Kenai River (Alaska) Brown Bears, had just lost in overtime to the Odessa Jackalopes in the NAHL Showcase Tournament in Blaine, Minn. Despite scoring ten goals in their first three games, the Brown Bears remained winless and Jackstadt was taking it pretty hard.

“It’s okay,” said teammate Zack Zulkanycz, patting him on the shoulder. “You’re good.” And with that, he began his post-game interview.

“Jackstadt can get a little too hyped up,” offers Alec Butcher, a teammate who lives with both players, “but I’m on a line with Jack so I can calm him down and keep his head cool.”

“He gets frustrated,” says Zulkanycz. “We live together, so I know his emotions.”

Zulkanycz is from Kenai, while the other two players come from two and a half hours away in Anchorage.

“I’ve known these guys ever since we were Squirts,” says Conor Deal, another Anchorage native that grew up playing with Jackstadt, Zulkanycz, and Butcher. “It’s more of a community in Anchorage.”

On a team with players ranging from Pennsylvania to Colorado to California (and even a guy from Sweden), the four Alaska natives thrive on the camaraderie they've developed by playing with each other from a young age. Zulkanycz and Deal play on one line together, while Jackstadt and Butcher have been paired on another.

“It’s going really, really well,” says Zulkanycz. “We’re all getting ice time.”

Zulkanycz describes himself as a power forward, “kinda an (expletive) on the ice,” while Deal is more of a defensive player and Jackstadt is a pure scorer.

“Jackstadt was really, really quick out of the gate,” says Deal of Jackstadt, who led his previous team in scoring last year. “During [the first] camp he was shaky and nervous, but he came to training camp and just blew everyone away.”

Jackstadt, Zulkanycz and Butcher are all first-year players. Deal is in his second season with the team.

“Last year we had guys—the 20-year-old's, 21-year-old's—that aged out that I hadn’t really gotten to play with because I joined as an 18-year-old, so I wasn’t really in their age group,” he explains. “It’s kinda nice to have [Jackstadt, Zulkanycz and Butcher] on the team this year because everyone got along.”

Butcher was not on the team at the beginning of the year. He began the season north of the border with the Prince George Spruce Kings of the BCHL and the Carleton Place Canadians of the CCHL before joining the Brown Bears.

“I got tendered last year by Kenai so I knew they had interest in me,” says the peripatetic 18-year-old. Kenai coach Oliver David kept tabs on him while he was playing in Canada and traded for him in November.

Both Canadian teams moved Butcher from his natural position, center, and put him on the wing. He did not score in the 21 games he split between the Spruce Kings and the Canadians, but has already scored twice for the Brown Bears.

“He’s doing great,” says Deal. “His first game with us he got a goal. Butcher and Jackstadt…together they’re amazing. They’ve produced the most, if not all, of our points.”

“One of the first things [Oliver] told me when I came over was that I was going to be playing center,” says Butcher. “Just hearing that, that helped.”

Upon moving to Kenai, Butcher joined Jackstadt at the Zulkanycz residence. “It’s awesome,” says Jackstadt.

“It was an easy transition going from Anchorage to Kenai and Lisa is like a mother to me. Me and Zack played on the same team for the last five years. And then having Butcher come billet with us, that was really cool.”

The boys have an Xbox 360 in the house that is popular with the team. The games of choice are NHL 13, Call of Duty and FIFA 13.

“Everyone on our team plays Xbox,” says Zulkanycz.

“I’m the best in the house,” claims Jackstadt. “This is in all the games so far.”

“Jackstadt said that?” retorts Deal. “That’s debatable. He might be good at FIFA, but those other games, I don’t know. I’m better than him in a few games.”

“Best at Xbox?” echoes Butcher. “It definitely depends on what games you’re talking about, but I have him beat in NHL 13 every time. I’ll give FIFA to him and Call of Duty is always me.”

Zack appears to be the odd man out.

“When it comes to video games,” he says, “they definitely beat me all the time.”

“Zack is awful at video games,” says Butcher. “It’s like playing a third grader.”

The three housemates live only minutes away from the Soldotna Sports Center, home of the Brown Bears. Zulkanycz grew up watching the games and it still amazes him that he gets to put on the uniform every day.

“I have just grown up watching them the last five years since they’ve been around,” he says, donning a sweater that could have been designed by Sarah Palin—it features a giant bear with a salmon in its mouth.

“I always liked the team and that’s the team I wanted to play for.”

Perhaps that is why every win and loss is so emotional for these four players—during the day they get to spend time playing video games with their friends and at night they get to suit up and play in front of friends and family.

“Coming down here,” says Jackstadt, “was a dream come true.”

Follow Tom Schreier on Twitter via @tschreier3