It might be hard to picture playing sports in a place many people might see as wild and untamed, but Alaskans are just as sports-crazed as the rest of North America. Anchorage, with a population of nearly 300,000, is an extremely diverse city filled with people who love the outdoors and being active in any way they can.
There are dozens of hockey, football, rugby, and soccer teams in Anchorage and all over the state, but there is currently only one lacrosse program. The director of Anchorage Lacrosse, Gabe Lipchik, is on a mission to change that by putting a lacrosse stick in the hands of as many Alaskans as possible.
Lacrosse may be growing like crazy in the lower 48 states, but there are still places it hasn’t taken hold. After more than 2 years of growth, Gabe has helped build Anchorage Lacrosse into a stable group of players excited about the sport with 50% or more growth every year. You can hear the passion he has for lacrosse on the phone as he talks about how the sport had fluctuated before but is now taking root in the community.
“It’s in this unique phase where it will be dormant and then it will get this rush of interest,” Gabe says. “The biggest thing is finding other like-minded people that want to help coach so that it’s not just me being a one-man show trying to coach 30 kids.”
Gabe’s journey to leading the program actually began in his 6th Grade gym class the same way the Powell brothers and many other legends first learned about lacrosse. Unfortunately, there were no teams in Alaska at the time. Like a lot of the people that live in Anchorage and surrounding communities like Eagle River, Gabe was born in the lower 48 but found his way to Alaska through his family’s military ties.
“My dad was in the Air Force so I lived in 5 different states and 2 different countries all before I graduated high school. I eventually found places that had lacrosse and played a little bit in Texas, Michigan, and Ohio, but never really went beyond that until college where I played in men’s leagues.”
After living in different parts of the country for several years, Gabe returned to Alaska in 2010 for family and work. At the time, a men’s team called “The Alaska Bush Pilots” was actually going strong with about 20 members.
“We would meet up in a casual fashion and play. We actually traveled a lot out of state and would go to the Jam By The Sea Tournament in San Diego. But around 2013 it kind of all fell apart. The guys who handled all the admin and booking the fields had other commitments.”
In the years after, leagues would pop up then fade out with nothing really sticking. Then in 2018, Gabe became involved with Anchorage Lacrosse by chance and it quickly turned into an amazing opportunity.
“A friend of mine saw an ad on Facebook and asked if I was doing anything with the box lacrosse league up here. I didn’t know anything about it so he sent me the date and time. I show up and there’s 2 hockey coaches with 35 elementary school kids on a dry indoor hockey rink.”
“I pulled out my gear and the kids just ate it up. They had never seen any lacrosse gear like the gloves or helmets before and they looked at it like it’s from the future.”
Hockey is king in Anchorage with many Alaskans going off to play in college and even the NHL. Ice time is available 365 days a year with so many rinks in the area. Anchorage Hockey had set up the lacrosse league and the hockey coaches explained to Gabe their philosophy that lacrosse is great for the offseason, it’s great for cardio, and the skills transition very well. They told him they really had no idea what they were doing and asked if he’d like to help out.
“I had coached middle and high school boy’s teams back in Ohio in the mid-2000s so I said I’d love to do it. Then they asked if I’d like to be the director and the face of it up here. I said alright that’s not what I had in the cards, but I’d like to give back. That’s always been a passion of mine.”
Gabe suddenly had an opportunity to help bring lacrosse back to Anchorage. However, trying to build a lacrosse program in Alaska has a very different set of challenges than in the lower 48. Between the weather, the struggle to get gear shipped up to them, and the various other summer hobbies Alaska offers, lacrosse is usually one of the last things on people’s list of summer activities for their kids.
“Up here in Alaska turf is just as expensive as ice to rent. In the beginning of April, other sports like soccer or football usually take priority. We have a lot of grass fields, but of course, you’re just at the mercy of mother nature.”
When the weather does clear up, many people would rather take advantage of the world-class opportunities for hunting, fishing, and outdoor activities right in their backyard than spend a whole summer playing lacrosse.
“We always have difficulty getting enough bodies to play because during the summer so many people are doing something else. Even myself most weekends I’m out on the river or out on the boat fishing. That’s how I fill my freezer and feed my family.”
Having the Air Force and Army bases in Anchorage adds a unique resource for the program as it brings in people with playing experience, but it, unfortunately, ends up serving more like a revolving door.
“A lot of our population is transient. We’ve got a lot of kids that will come out that have already played for 7 years somewhere like Florida or Massachusetts. We also have a lot of guys that played college at various levels that want to help coach, but they are only here for 2 years and then they’re reassigned somewhere else. It was the same thing with our men’s league when we played. People come and go and that’s no fault of their own, but it’s hard to continue stable growth.”
Growing a base of players from scratch has meant making some sacrifices. Gabe and the other coaches know that it has to start at the grassroots level before trying to jump into anything too big.
“We’ve had a lot of interest from lacrosse companies and organizations that have reached out to us a few times. I think part of it is the novelty of Alaska and that there’s actually life up here. They tell us they’d like to come up here and set up an event with pro players.” Most Alaskan kids would recognize NHL players, but they would likely have no idea who most star college or pro lacrosse players are. “Via YouTube kids know about the Powell brothers of course, but also ask me if I know who Matt Gibson is because they watch all of his wall ball videos. We have to wake up at 7 am on a Saturday if we want to watch a college game like Syracuse vs Johns Hopkins.”
For now, getting sticks in hands and having kids keep coming back is more important for the program than knowing the college Top 20 rankings or latest PLL draft picks.
“Before we spend a bunch of money to get pro players up here we kind of wanted to get it going with strong turnouts. We have given away a bunch of sticks that have been branded to us and we’ve eaten the cost of equipment just trying to grow it. Some of the kids see the fastest shot videos so they love shooting on the radar gun. Anything to spark their interest is great.”
Along with the steady growth of the youth program and hoping to get it into the Anchorage School District, Gabe has been able to get others in the community involved with lacrosse in unique ways.
“Challenge Alaska is an awesome adaptive sports organization up here. I had reached out to them about putting something together and they said they would love to come out and do a wheelchair lacrosse event. I looked at the calendar and saw Play Lax Day and thought it would be perfect.”
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“I got a grant from US Lacrosse and they sent up a bunch of sticks, balls, and odds and ends for us. The great thing about Challenge Alaska is that they encourage parents and siblings of wheelchair athletes to come out and participate too so it was a great learning experience for everybody. Everyone had a great time and we’re looking to do it again in 2021.”
One of Gabe’s biggest hopes is that they can start building tournaments and events to make Alaska a destination lacrosse spot like Vail or Hawaii. With such natural beauty and a wide range of activities, Anchorage could quickly become a bucket list lacrosse spot.
“We have the summer solstice up here on June 21st, which is the longest day of the year and the sun doesn’t set. We’d like to set up a box lacrosse tournament because all of our outdoor rinks aren’t being used. It would be a unique event. We want folks to come up here to do tournaments and camps while also planning day trips to go kayaking, Sockeye fishing, or go climb a mountain.”
With all of the growth lacrosse has seen all over the U.S. it can be easy to overlook that it still has such a far way to go in some parts of the country. It is a long way away, but how incredible would it be to see a homegrown Alaskan playing college lacrosse?
Gabe hopes that his efforts will be the start of something great for the Anchorage community and that he is able to bring lacrosse into peoples’ lives like it was brought into his.
“Lacrosse is such a dynamic family. You’ve got where you have come from with your lacrosse experience, you have where you are at currently with it, and then you have your legacy after. Whether you are coaching, officiating, or a player it’s about the legacy that you leave and that others look back at you on.”
With lacrosse pathfinders like Gabe Lipchik leading the way, lacrosse in Alaska is in good hands.
Gabe has a lacrosse academy ready to start back up this May so if you know anyone in the Anchorage area looking to have their kids try lacrosse please share the link below:
If you’re interested in setting up an event or supporting the Anchorage Lacrosse Program please don’t hesitate to send Gabe an email: firstname.lastname@example.org