Moose Lake Star Gazette - Serving Carlton and Pine Counties Since 1895

By Steve Korby
Pine Knot News 

Hockey, Alaska, and Northern Lights

 

This is a tale of a nearly 80-year-old gent who grew up in Barnum on a farm in the 1950s, enlisted in the Army and traveled the world, and managed a working career which included teaching children and building partnerships among various interests and groups. His name is Alan Finifrock. He is back in the area now living in Cloquet as a retiree and world class Carlton County tree farmer. Ironically, when he taught school in rural Alaska, the nearest tree was 100 miles away.

Since Al knew that I write articles for the Pine Knot newspaper and that I have a penchant for sports stories, he gave me details of a series of events that happened in Alaska while he was instructing there that demonstrated some of his Minnesota born willpower and sports and learning determination.

First, some background on Finifrock. He grew up in the Barnum/Nemadji area and was inspired as a youth by, among others, his FFA teacher and Mayor of Barnum Bob Johnson, and his Methodist minister Ed Rieff. Both had a global view of the world and supported Al's diversity growth. He enlisted in the Army when he was 18 and had his basic training assignment in Texas. The Army was racially integrated which gave Finifrock an opportunity to work with folks from all over the country. Al said the Army was a great opportunity to learn from other cultures.

In 1966, the GI Bill revision passed and was extended to Cold War and Vietnam War veterans. Al took advantage of this for his last two years he was attending UMD and received GI Bill assistance to obtain his teaching degree. He was married by this time and his spouse (Sharon) was also a teacher. He began utilizing his degree by being an elementary teacher in Hermantown. But Finifrock was always intrigued by the possibility of teaching youth in Northern Ontario or other remote areas.

After doing some research, Al and Sharon both accepted teaching positions in remote Alaska. Some of the reasons they chose Alaska over Canada were that their family income tripled, plus the Alaskan village wanted couples that were teachers (it saved the school district housing reimbursement costs), and, of course, because Alaska is recognized as a mecca for hunting and fishing. One of the villages where Al ended up accepting a job, featured a one-room schoolhouse and had a student population that was one half Athabaskan Indians. This would be a very rich diversity opportunity for Al that his upbringing had prepared him for.

Glennallen was 200 miles northeast of Anchorage. In 1969, there was no TV there and this was years before cell phones or the internet were part of everyone's routine daily life.

Al was somewhat surprised that the kids there mainly played basketball. He quickly understood, though, that basketball provided a controlled climate in the gymnasium and lighting when dark. Al, himself, mainly played basketball and ran track growing up in Barnum and he did help referee and coach basketball in Glennallen.

During his first school year there, he decided to build a small skating rink for his three-year-old daughter outside the duplex where he lived. He used a garden hose to flood the ground and built a little rink about 10-by-10-feet square. Soon, other kids asked if they could skate on the rink after school. It even got crowded. As spring approached, Al said rocks that popped through the rink surface as the ice melted had to be painted. Kids loved it and it became a popular exercise alternative.

As he contemplated a potential rink location for the following season, he realized removing some of the rocks and making the proposed area level would add tremendously to the ice quality and provide a larger area for the kids. One of the community parents, who must have heard Al thinking and happened to have a bulldozer, asked if their family could help. Soon, other students and parents joined in the fun. This was one of the greatest community organizing projects that Al had ever seen. They built a 150-feet long, level skating area. With a grant from an Indian Enrichment program, the school received dollars to put up hockey boards. Al said the kids assembled and painted the advertisers' names and logos on the boards and couldn't wait for winter to come so they could flood the rink and get out and skate after school. Many stated they wanted to try hockey.

One evening after school, several kids and families were skating on the new rink and something happened that Finifrock said he'd never forget. With few trees or mountains nearby, the sunrises and sunsets can be spectacular. Usually, the Northern Lights come during the middle of the night. On this special evening, Aurora Borealis was in its finest grandeur.

"Everyone, young and old, just laid on their backs on the ice and stared up into the sky," Al said. "The Northern Lights were so bright that the ice was nearly fluorescent!" He said all of them would just "ooh" and "ahh" as the lights danced with various shades of greens, pinks, reds, and purples. He doesn't think a camera could have done justice to the fabulous light display. Per Al, "It was as close to magic as you can get. You could hear the Northern Lights crackle because they were so low and full of electricity."

Al and his wife decided to take one year off from teaching and away from Alaska so Al could finish his Masters degree in education. He enrolled at Bemidji State University and also signed up for a Coaching Hockey class. The class was taught by the BSU hockey coach and nearly all student participants were college hockey players. Al had never played hockey and wasn't an accomplished skater. Yet, the coach took him under his wing, understood Al's purpose in taking the class, and helped him relate to the basics of skating and coaching hockey.

Returning to Alaska the next school year, the Finifrocks lived in a different community called Chistochinia. They lived there for four years. With his new training, Al felt very comfortable coaching youth hockey. Depending on pipeline or other economic activity, the school usually had 20-25 kids in total in grades 1-6. With the lack of population and schools, it wasn't uncommon for Al's hockey teams to have to play similar aged kids from 100 miles away ... or the nearest tree. Al didn't claim to be the next Scotty Bowman, Toe Blake or even Wren Blair, but he could coach the basics and his students loved hockey and often relayed their gratitude to him.

Another twist in the story. Al was teaching and coaching hockey in Alaska - 3,149 miles away from Barnum by car, or 2,452 miles as the crow or Arctic tern fly - and he saw the name of a coach on an opposing team and it looked familiar. The name was Dick Waisanen and he was from Moose Lake, Minnesota! Al taught in Chistochinia and Wasinen at Kenny Lake Schools. Their teams were about 100 miles apart, but, in the same Copper Basin Hockey League. Imagine living and coaching in Alaska against a fellow Carlton County transplant. Amazing. They still stay in touch and are friends.

The Finifrocks moved back to Minnesota and Al began a career in Human Resources at Superwood/Georgia Pacific in Duluth. He also taught classes at local colleges and universities. Furthering his hockey coaching career, he instructed the women's Rec Sports Hockey team at UMD from 1983-1989. (This was the predecessor to the NCAA recognized team and eventual national champs.)

It was a tremendous feel good sports story that I heard from Al, and the "build it and they will come" community development process is uplifting.

But I think there was even a bigger message: Al pointed out to me that, in these days of what seems like intolerance of others, the opposite is what we need to learn, teach, and share. "Maybe we just need to lay on our backs together on the ice and watch for the magic in the night sky." Ain't that the truth. Thanks Al.

Steve Korby's interest in writing goes back to when he was in fourth grade and editor of the Scan-Satellite school newspaper in Scanlon. Steve loves sports, especially golf. He welcomes human interest stories and tales regarding Carlton County residents, projects, history, and plans.

 

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