‘Beer league’ hockey creates buzz in Eagle River

Friday, September 8, 2017 - 12:57
  • Star file photo

A new beer-themed adult hockey league is the centerpiece of ongoing efforts to shore up finances at the Harry J. McDonald Center in Eagle River.

Called the Eagle River Hockey League (or ERHL), the venture was started by McDonald Center manager Reid McDonald, who earlier this summer co-founded a nonprofit to run the league.

However, while optimistic about new revenues, members of the Eagle River/Chugiak Parks and Recreation Board of Supervisors have expressed some concerns about the alcohol-related aspects of the league and the potential appearance of conflicts by McDonald, who also owns Eagle River’s only brewery.

McDonald first presented the idea for the adult hockey league this spring as a way of helping the center make its budget. Owned by the Municipality of Anchorage, the “Mac” Center has faced budget shortfalls and cashflow problems for months. A budget deficit in 2016 triggered an Anchorage Assembly review of the municipality’s contract with Fire Lake Arena Management, Inc., the local nonprofit formed to manage the Mac Center when it first opened more than 30 years ago.

In a revamped marketing and operations plan McDonald presented to assembly members, auditors and park officials in February, he said he expected to raise $57,500 in new revenue for 2017, with the new hockey league budgeted to raise $10,000.

McDonald officially announced the league — of which he’ll serve as president — alongside vice president Steve Glines at a press conference held for KTUU-TV reporter Patrick Enslow at Pizza Man restaurant in Eagle River earlier this month. Wearing shorts, a league t-shirt and a suit jacket, McDonald said the league will give opportunities to “upper level” players as well as less experienced players.

“We are 45-year-old former elite players and we’re still trying to make it fun,” McDonald said during the press conference.

At a meeting of the parks board held Aug. 14, a board member complimented McDonald on his television appearance.

“The suit coat I got at the Salvation Army for five bucks,” McDonald joked.

Play will begin this fall, with several local businesses lined up to sponsor teams.

While the official announcement came Aug. 7, the ERHL has been promoting itself on social media since May 20, three days before McDonald joined with Glines, Dan Watts and Jacob Thompson to create the nonprofit. In addition to being league president, McDonald will also serve on the new nonprofit’s board of directors, as will Glines, Watts, Walter Eunice and Travis Martin, who works alongside McDonald at the Mac Center.

In photos and videos posted to its Facebook page, the league has presented itself as “Alaska’s Premier Beer League,” with McDonald and other league members frequently posing with beers or cocktails at local bars, including Odd Man Rush, the Eagle River brewery McDonald co-owns with Brian Swanson and Ross Johnson.

Adult recreational hockey leagues are informally referred to as “beer leagues” by the players, often former college or high school players. The new league has been markting to those players, promoting itself via a variety of irreverent online posts — many featuring McDonald in a starring role. In one photo, the Mac Center manager appears shirtless at TIPS Bar (one of the league’s sponsors) while standing behind an ERHL banner.

“Yea, things always get a little weird when the hockey dudes show up,” reads the photo caption. “Our shirtless Prez is currently the oldest player in the ERHL go ahead zoom in, you’re welcome. Dad bods abound in our league!!”

The league has also produced a number of promotional videos that have been posted to its Facebook page. In one, the league’s Spandex-clad mascot “ERHL Man” pulls a can of chewing tobacco from a large codpiece covering his crotch and tosses it at the camera; in another, McDonald mocks a potential rival league owner as “f***ing soft” while drinking beers at the brewery.

During the Aug. 14 parks board meeting, McDonald explained that the off-color humor is meant to be tongue-in-cheek.

“The whole thing is intended to be funny,” he said after board member Brian Fay told McDonald he was “really concerned about the beer aspect of the beer league.”

It’s a concern that’s been voiced by board members at previous meetings, but McDonald said beer won’t be served at the center during games and he thinks the concerns about the boozy appearance of the league are unfounded.

“I don’t think we’re going to have an alcohol issue,” he said.

Board members also expressed some discomfort with social media posts, and Eagle River Parks and Recreation director John Rodda said concerns have been raised by the public.

“I’ve had some comments,” Rodda said.

Though he didn’t mention any specific examples, Rodda cautioned McDonald about the use of social media in general terms.

“Sometimes people should be more careful with what they put out there,” he said.

Fay said he’s also heard concerns about the appearance of conflicts of interest, with McDonald running a nonprofit beer league, a private brewery and the McDonald Center all at the same time. However, McDonald said he doesn’t believe his interest in the brewery has anything to do with the new nonprofit hockey league or his role as center manager.

“I don’t understand what the brewery has to do with anything,” he said.

Despite McDonald’s assertions, social media posts show the three groups are closely related. On May 21, the Odd Man Rush Facebook page posted a photo of the ERHL’s five board members holding beers outside the brewery. According to the post, Odd Man Rush was “a proud sponsor” of the new hockey league, and many of the league’s promotional photos were taken inside and outside the brewery. Additionally, the ERHL was touted as a sponsor of the Odd Man Rush Golf Tournament held June 2.

McDonald said he didn’t start the new nonprofit to help his business — he started it to help the Mac, a facility built in 1984 and later named for his late father, a longtime area hockey coach who died in 1994.

“The reason I started the league is to sell ice,” he said.

Parks board member Lexi Hill joined Fay in urging caution, saying McDonald needs to be extremely careful about appearances.

“You could come under fire simply because you do benefit in multiple ways,” she said.

Eagle River Parks and Recreation manager Karen Richards also joined the caution chorus, telling McDonald to be “careful” not to conduct hockey league business while getting paid to run the McDonald Center.

Despite the concerns, board members and Rodda expressed hope about McDonald’s plans to get the Mac back in the black.

“I’m very optimistic,” Rodda said.

McDonald told board members he’s also lined up additional turf time that will help generate revenue, and ice rentals are also up over this time last year. He criticized the Star newspaper for painting an inaccurate picture of the center’s finances in previous stories about the center.

“We’re actually not in a bad spot at all,” he said.

McDonald did admit he didn’t have all the financial numbers parks board members wanted to see, but that was because he was gone for half the month, his office manager was out of the office and he still hasn’t met with his own internal auditor.

“Not being all together was tough on us,” he said.

In addition to questioning McDonald about the new hockey league, board members and Rodda quizzed McDonald about his financial plans. Hill wondered why the labor costs weren’t being addressed, while Rodda pointed out an unexpected increase in energy costs.

McDonald didn’t comment on any possible labor cuts, but told Rodda he’s a hawk when it comes to keeping an eye out for savings.

“There aren’t a lot of lights being left on,” he said.

If the center doesn’t make its budget, the assembly will again review its contract; however, Rodda said the center appears to be on track to make its budget.

“Right now the expectation is it will be on the positive side,” he said.

Hill expressed cautious optimism, telling McDonald to “keep plugging away” on expenses and revenue.

“Keep improving,” she said.

Email Star editor Matt Tunseth at editor@alaskastar.com or reporter Kirsten Swann at kirsten.swann@alaskastar.com

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