DeKALB — For most people, an encounter with a bear would shake them to their core.
But for Alaska-native Rodahn Evans, he’ll say a bear is nothing to be afraid of. There is another animal roaming Alaska that is much more aggressive.
“A [mother] moose will kill you; they’re more scary than bears,” Evans said. “Bears are not scary; bears are soft.”
In the middle of winter when Evans was 14 years old, he and a friend were jumping out of a hot tub and into snow, and then back in the hot tub to get a tingly feeling through their body.
“I jumped out [and] landed face first in the snow,” Evans said. "Then [I] stood up, and there was a bull moose just staring at me. It got up on its hind legs like it was going to trample me, and I was gone. When I turned around it was still standing there, almost like it was laughing at me. When it’s pitch black, you can’t see anything but their black little eyes.”
Evans is a first-year player for NIU’s American Collegiate Hockey Association D1 team. The 5-foot-8-inch forward is one of 18 first-year players on the team’s 22 player roster.
The 21-year-old is from Healy, which has a population of 1,098. The closest fast food restaurant is a McDonald’s 200 miles away. There were only 168 people in Evans’ school, which ranged from kindergarten to 12th grade, and he had seven people in his graduating class.
“They’re either your cousin or your best friend,” Evans said. “There’s not a single person you don’t know, and if there is someone you don’t know, it’s a tourist.”
In Healy, many kids grow up playing hockey because there is not much else to do come wintertime, the Healy native said. Evans was a self-described “rink-rat” growing up because he and his friends spent much of their time playing at the outdoor Healy ice rink. It sits in the shadows of Mount Healy.
The Healy ice rink is home to the Healy Hockey Association youth programs, Tri-Valley school teams and local men’s and women’s leagues.
“The only thing we had was a hockey rink,” Evans said. “Our basketball courts weren’t good. It’s cold most of the time in the winter, so the hockey rink was a big thing, and everybody got into hockey. Everybody played.”
To many people, being outside in an Alaskan winter seems unappealing; however, for Evans and his teammates, there was no choice if they wanted to play the game they love.
There was a rule at Healy’s rink, if the temperature dropped below -35 degrees, the game would be cancelled. Evans said he remembers a specific day when it was -38 degrees, but he and his teammates weren’t ready to head home without getting their game in.
“Me and my buddies decided it was a good idea to go outside shirtless to the thermometer to warm it up right before the refs came,” Evans said. “So, it was like -32 and the refs walked up and were like, ‘OK, let’s go play.’ They called it after the second period though, because -35 is just too cold. Their mouths were sticking to the whistle.”
Hockey has helped Evans travel all over the country, as he has played for a handful of teams before NIU. Evans played in Arizona, Washington, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. While playing in Arizona, Evans was teammates with Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs superstar center.
On the ice, those freezing cold days at Healy’s outdoor rink added a little extra grit and grind to his game.
“He plays an aggressive style of play, hard on the puck, hard in the corners,” captain and senior forward Brad Krauser said. “That’s definitely his playing type. He’s definitely more of a grinder type player.”
When Evans reached the cut-off age to continue playing junior hockey, he decided to play college hockey to prolong his career. Evans was actively recruited by private liberal arts schools that had NCAA D3 hockey teams, including Albertus Magnus College, Anna Maria College, Fitchburg State University and Framingham State University. The problem was the schools were wildly expensive and didn’t offer a degree in mechanical engineering, Evans’ current major.
That’s where NIU had the upper-hand.
“He was mind blown at how the east coast schools that were trying to recruit him were so expensive,” NIU Hockey General Manager Ian Kalanges said. “Then, [with] the cost for NIU, he said, ‘I can go to a bigger school in the Midwest, play ACHA D1 hockey and the savings are going to be there.’”
Kalanges recruited Evans to come play for the Huskies. He connected with Evans through Facebook after seeing that Evans was about to age out of the Eastern Hockey League and had yet to commit to a school. Because the EHL is an east coast league, Kalanges never saw Evans play a live game before coming to NIU.
Kalanges said he checked statistics and saw video footage online of Evans playing, and it was enough to convince him that Evans would be a good fit.
Once NIU caught Evans’ interest, he needed to learn more about the campus and the hockey facilities before he could fully commit, but he couldn’t make it to NIU’s campus because getting flights out of Alaska are expensive. So, he was forced to work with what he had.
“He actually never toured campus, never toured the rink,” Kalanges said. “One of his teammates [who] was also interested came out here and toured campus [and] toured the rink. He was the eyes and ears [for Evans]. They talked on the phone the entire time he was touring.”
Evans said despite his former teammates efforts, he still didn’t get a good grasp on the campus or rink. This made it tough for him to commit to the school.
“It was actually kind of hard; I didn’t really want to [come to NIU],” Evans said. “My mom really wanted me to because I could study engineering. I didn’t want to because it really wasn’t appeasing to me. But I decided it was a good idea, probably better financially and everything else.”
Evans said he didn't want to come to NIU at first because he's never been here before. He said the thought of going back to school for the first time since high school scared him. But now that he's here, he feels he made the right choice.
Evans credits his Alaskan roots for making him the person he is today, both on and off the ice. In the summertime, Evans works for his dad’s construction company. Because of the harsh Alaskan winters, they must squeeze as much work as possible into the summer, meaning Evans works 12-hour shifts.
Evans also credits his parents for instilling strong morals in him, he said.
“I notice I’m the only one that says ‘yes ma’am’ and ‘yes sir’ around here,” Evans said. “I always hold doors open for people and say thank you, and other people aren’t so prone to do so.”
In Alaska, they have 30-consecutive days in the summer when the sun stays up 24/7, and 30-consecutive days in the winter when the sun never comes up. Those endless days of light in the summer can mess with the body's internal clock, Evans said.
“In July, you go to work, you start hanging out with friends and all the sudden it’s 3 a.m. and you have to go to work in three hours,” Evans said. “You get used to it, but it messes with your mind a lot.”
During the endless dark in the winter, morale hits an all time low. Evans said not having someone to spend the long and dark days with, it makes it even worse.
“You’re just down in the dumps," Evasn said. "Imagine not seeing the sun for an extended period of time, not knowing when you’re going to see the light again.”
Evans is confident that some of his teammates would do well during those long Alaskan winters and 12-hour work days. He thinks first-year forwards Nick Gonzalez and Alex Piotrowski, and sophomore forward Tyler Gut all show “work horse” characteristics that are necessary in Alaska.
However, Evans isn’t so confident in one teammates odds of doing well in Alaska. Evans says first-year forward Hunter Wahl is just too much of a "pretty boy."
Evans said he notices many cultural differences between Healy and DeKalb. One that he misses the most is the sense of community he felt back in Alaska.
“Here, if you go outside and try knocking on someone’s door, they’ll freak out,” Evans said. “Back home, you could go to someone else’s house, walk straight in and grab a glass of milk. It could be your best friend’s mother. You could walk in, the door’s open, you could eat a full plate of food.”
Evans also recognizes a lack of independence from people in DeKalb compared to those back in Alaska. He’s noticed people leaning on the help of others far more. In Alaska, people need to be self-dependent if they want to survive.
“Everyone knows what’s wrong with their car,” Evans said. “Everybody knows how to change a tire; everybody knows how to hunt and skin, [and] everybody knows how to fish and take care of themselves. We don’t have people that whine and cry about things at all. If you have a problem with something, you do it yourself. What else do you have besides yourself?”
Contrary to popular belief, there is wifi in Alaska, a common misconception Evans experiences when talking to others. He’s been asked if it gets warm in Alaska and if they have polar bears. He’s even been asked if he lives in an igloo.
“If you ask people where Alaska is on the map, they point to the bottom left-hand corner,” Evans said. “In all state maps, Alaska and Hawaii are down in the left-hand corner, and people will tell me it’s down there.”
After college, Evans hopes to parlay a mechanical engineering degree into making major advancements in the world of prosthetics. He feels current prosthetic designs are very basic and there’s money to be made with a big breakthrough.
As for where he wants to live after college, Evans just knows he wants to avoid Alaska in the wintertime.