They practice their craft closer to Siberia than to Seattle. Their dedication helps stoke the fire and keep alive beneficial activities that might otherwise disappear into the vast empty spaces of their home state. To get to their games they must use every form of locomotion ever developed in an effort to navigate a landmass more than two-and-a-half times the size of Texas. Partially because of their efforts, hunting and fishing are no longer the only sports of consequence there, and the hearty dogs that drag sleds through 1,100 miles of barren but beautiful countryside each March in the Iditarod race are no longer considered the state’s best athletes. Getting to their games is often more difficult than calling them. They’ve gone north, north to Alaska, and most of them wouldn’t even consider returning to the continental U.S.
They’re Alaska’s sports officials, calling games in some of the coldest, darkest and most remote locations in the U.S.
Much of the state’s organized athletics, as well as much of the state’s population, can be found in and near Anchorage. The state’s most prominent team-sport athletes have virtually all been from there: Former NBA great Carlos Boozer, retired NHL player Scott Gomez and Red Sox pitching legend Curt Schilling all hail from the state’s largest city.
While Anchorage may seem like any community you’d find in the lower 48 — maybe a little colder — sports have floated along the state’s aquatic capillaries as well as its road network and taken up residence in the small fishing villages and Eskimo tribal communities — wherever there are enough people to divide into opposing teams.
The most difficult challenge to officiating in Alaska is also the most mundane: good old-fashioned travel. Remember how Indiana Jones’ travels were depicted as he fought Nazis all over the world? That’s what officials sometimes endure to get where they’re going: a long, smooth arc representing a commercial jet flight to a town of some consequence. That is followed by a shorter arc representing an unscheduled ride in a bush plane of dubious airworthiness that gets the ref to an airstrip hacked out of the wilderness. Finally, the superimposed map begins to fade and the camera zooms in on our hero, peering grimly into the middle distance as he steers his sled dog team toward the tiny plume of chimney smoke on the horizon.
All right, perhaps teams of sled dogs aren’t involved, but snowmobiles certainly are. The rule of thumb in Alaska is that travel is never just a matter of the shortest distance between two points.
“I did a regional tourney and I flew on a commercial jet to Bethel,” explained Robert DeCino, a basketball official with a decade of service in the nation’s 49th state. “When I got there, it was 40 below zero. We then hopped on a bush plane to a small village and were met by the principal. Later that morning the games started. Of course it was dark by 3:30 p.m. and the sun didn’t rise until 10:30 the next morning. About eight small bush communities arrived for the tournament. There was standing room only and that included all around the sidelines and baseline — Eskimos in parkas watching their kids play basketball. After each evening as I exited the gym all that we could see outside were snow machines. That is how these folks traveled to the tournament. In addition, I and only one other official did the whole tournament.”
The state’s northernmost community is Barrow, located 340 miles north of the Arctic Circle. And even though there are no roads that lead into town (you either snowmobile in from a nearby village or fly into the city airport from Fairbanks or Anchorage), Barrow is considered a pretty big metropolis compared to most any other northern Alaska community.
“After the oil pipeline boom a few years ago, Barrow built a $70 million high school,” says Dick Shellhorn, a 32-year veteran basketball official from Cordova. “Strangely enough, because of the limited number of schools in Alaska, Cordova, a 3A school (101-400 students) was in the same league as Barrow, which is almost 1,500 miles away (Alaska’s conferences and districts have since realigned, but Barrow still plays schools 1,500 miles away!).
“We flew all the way up there for a tournament; of course, all the teams were housed in the school. It was late January, cold as heck. Anyhow, all the teams were fed in the school cafeteria. So there was always a big line waiting for meals. It was lunchtime on the second day of the tournament, the line was moving slowly, and all of a sudden, all the Eskimo gals who worked in the cafeteria walked off the job. They all left the kitchen, walked to the south facing windows of the spanking new cafeteria dining area and stared outside. Not knowing what was up, some of us walked over to do the same, thinking maybe a polar bear was walking down the street. We didn’t see anything, but the gals weren’t moving, so we waited to see what was up. Finally, in about two minutes, the very tip of the sun popped over the horizon for about one minute, and then vanished. Once it was gone, they all turned and went back to the kitchen without saying a word. I asked someone what that was all about, and the reply was: ‘That’s the first time we’ve seen the sun since back in November.’”
For 82 days in Barrow the sun rises and never sets — between May 10 and Aug. 2 — and from Nov. 18 through Jan. 24 the sun never rises above the skyline.
Officials have been known to describe fans as “nuts,” but the situation in Alaska is a bit different and more insidious. Behavioral problems are a well-documented fact of life and sports venues are not immune to the consequences of psychological problems that are essentially non-existent in the rest of the country.
“The basketball season here is very cold and very dark,” explained DeCino. “The sport is very big in this part of the state because it is something to do during the winter. It’s the time of year when we get the least amount of sunshine and because of that people get all sorts of interesting maladies, including seasonal affective disorder. There are a lot of suicides in this part of the country because of those maladies and sometimes you can tell there are things going on in the crowd that are beyond your control.”
“Have you ever worked a basketball game in which the tribal chief is on the sideline to make sure you get out safely if the home team loses?” asks Bill Broderson, the president of the Fairbanks Basketball Officials Association.
Tribal elders and sometimes even tribal chiefs will walk with an official to and from the dressing room (if there is one), because when a ref is working a tournament in a tiny Russian fishing village or an Eskimo settlement near the Arctic Circle, he is something far more important than a basketball official — he is a guest.
“When these schools have tournaments the officials are treated like royalty,” explained DeCino. “You eat better than you can imagine. Smoked salmon, soups, casseroles, authentic Russian food. It’s really fun to do those games because of how well you are treated.”
When’s the last time you heard that from an official in the lower 48? One of the benefits of working in Alaska is the opportunity to travel to communities where hospitality is more than perfunctory courtesy — it is a cultural imperative.
Of course that tradition of hospitality is, in part, a response to the harsh conditions these communities must endure. Just as Bedouin tribes are directed by custom to provide three days of hospitality to even their most bitter tribal enemies, residents of Alaska’s remote and unforgiving regions live in a world where a meal and a roof for a stranger (or even an adversary) may well mean the difference for that person between life and death. The conditions that Alaskans endure are daunting enough on paper: raw temperatures of 40 below zero and periods of the year where darkness is constant. But to experience them is to understand that the state’s residents often feel that there are no strangers, just potential survival partners whose names you don’t yet know.
Baseball is played under much more reasonable conditions. The window of weather favorable to baseball in Alaska may be short, but the state’s players and umpires take full advantage of it. In addition to robust youth, high school and American Legion teams, the Alaska Baseball League produced the club many baseball experts believe to be the best amateur team ever: The 1964 Alaska Goldpanners of Fairbanks had a roster that included Tom Seaver, Graig Nettles and Rick Monday.
The Goldpanners are also renowned as the hosts of the annual Midnight Sun baseball game, played every year on June 21, the summer solstice. Despite a 10:30 p.m. start time, the game is played entirely by natural light and has been since its inception. If the idea of calling balls and strikes by sunlight at 1:15 a.m. appeals to you, there’s only one place to do it.
Soccer, too, is a sport that, thanks to Alaska’s unique weather, finds itself dealing with a short season as well as, on occasion, short games.
“We can’t get on the outdoor fields before June 1,” says Richard Green, chair of the Alaska State Referee Committee. “Usually we try to be finished by mid-September, but sometimes we run into snow on the ground even then. Everyone grabs a shovel and we plow the field so we can finish the game.” Same thing with football, where the eight-week regular season ends in late September or early October, and the playoffs finish up a few weeks later.
While the weather is one adversary, darkness is another. “It gets late early” when summer is on the wane, and one of the decisions soccer officials need to make before a game begins is how long the game will last.
“In soccer, the rules say that a game must consist of two equal periods (unlike many hockey leagues, in which an official can shorten the third period alone to conform to ice time restrictions),” Green explains. “Later in the summer we have to make our best guess about how much light we have and determine how long the halves are going to be before the game starts.”
Whether it’s needing to travel more than 600 miles to serve as one of just two officials assigned to an eight-game tournament, being treated like royalty during a visit to a small native community or determining if it’s really and truly necessary to put a metal whistle in your mouth when the air temperature is eight below zero, Alaska indisputably provides officials with unique opportunities and challenges. In the nation’s northernmost state, the bases are still 90 feet apart and a successful 12-foot jump shot is still good for two points, but the circumstances under which Alaska’s officials do their work make the experience unique and memorable.
Van Oler is a freelance writer and hockey official from Cincinnati. This article was pulled from the Referee Archives and Referee is not responsible for any inaccuracy or misrepresentation resulting from the passage of time.
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