In a stroke of fortune for the isolated Alaskan fishing outpost of Homer, Shelly Laukitis and Kevin Bell Arena arrived in town at nearly the same time, and the two quickly became inseparable.
First, Laukitis set about learning to skate, no easy task for a 40-year-old. Then she took on the role of Homer Hockey Association president, dedicating herself to making those around her feel welcome at one of Alaska’s few indoor ice rinks. That part came more naturally.
“She does such a great job of reaching out to people and making it a community effort,” women's hockey league teammate Charlene “Chuck” Flyum said.
Shelly Laukitis learned to skate 10 years ago and now is one of the top players for the Divas, a Homer, Alaska, women's league team. Courtesy photo
A Washington native, Laukitis moved to Alaska in 1988, a year before marrying her husband, Buck. She settled in the Aleutian Islands – 700 miles from the nearest stoplight – and began a career in the commercial fishing industry. After Buck and Shelly were married, the couple lived in the Alaskan bush full time for more than 15 years before moving to Homer in 2005 to allow their daughters to grow up in a place with more opportunities.
Shortly after arriving in Homer, Laukitis was drawn to Kevin Bell Arena’s inclusive aura. She began skating with a group of women known as the Divas.
“I first became interested in playing (hockey) when I watched one of the Divas practices,” Laukitis said. “I was 40 years old and had never skated, so the fact that they put a priority on fun, teamwork and skill building attracted me to spend time with them.”
While Laukitis, 51, honed her skills, Buck added to his already lengthy hockey resume, which boasts two season of playing at the NCAA Division I level with Colorado College, a world juniors tryout and Olympic training in Colorado Springs.
Buck, an Illinois native, was asked to coach newly formed Homer High School hockey team. He led the team to a second-place finish in the 2005 Alaska State Athletic Association small-school state tournament, the program's only championship appearance. He later sat behind the bench for the Divas.
“The high school program was a great challenge,” Buck said. “Most varsity players start hockey as Mites, but these kids had played a little outdoor hockey at best."
The Divas presented an entirely different challenge.
“With kids, you just explain the rules or the drill and they play, but adult women ask why – and you have to be ready to explain,” Buck said. “I warned them right off the bat I was unqualified to coach adults.”
Name: Shelly Laukitis | Age: 51
Resides in: Homer, Alaska
Occupation: Commercial fishing, Magic Fish. Co
Family: Husband, Buck; daughters Claire (27) and Teal (26)
Interests: Ice hockey, nordic skiing and hiking
Laukitis grew up in Washington state and played soccer through college at Western Washington University in Bellingham. In 1990 she moved to Alaska's remote Aleutian Islands to pursue commercial fishing with her husband, Buck. The couple lived and raised their daughters in the Alaskan bush until moving to Homer in 2005. At age 40, Laukitis learned to skate and began playing hockey at Kevin Bell Arena. In 2012, she became a board member on the Homer Hockey Association and quickly grew the association’s membership, especially in the youth programs. She served as the non-profit organization’s president from 2014 to April 2017. Laukitis spends her summers fishing, and in the winters she plays women’s league hockey and teaches a learn-to-skate class for 4- to 6-year-olds called Microbells.
After utilizing several of the rink’s skating programs, Laukitis shifted her focus from learning the skills of hockey to teaching them. In 2012 she became a board member and vice president of the Homer Hockey Association, the governing board that maintains the non-profit Kevin Bell Arena. She quickly recognized a need for skater recruitment and began teaching a beginners skating program for 4 to 6 year olds called Microbells.
“We offer our first session for free with a bag of loaner gear to take the financial obligation away from just trying it out,” Laukitis said. “They get to wear the gear, and when they fall down, they learn to trust their gear. It’s great to watch them get comfortable with falling down and learning to get back up and trying again.
"I like that message and how it can weave into everything else they do off the ice.”
One of Laukitis’ former students, 7-year-old Ulson Wall, signed up for Microbells shortly after moving to Homer in 2014. Although his parents had no background in hockey, Wall’s skills and passion for the sport grew rapidly while working with Laukitis.
“She was my first coach – she opened doors to me,” Wall said. “Don’t fall on your stomach, catch yourself and use your pads. One knee on the ice, then the other.”
Ulson’s mother, Nicole, said she’s not sure what her three kids would be doing if Kevin Bell Arena wasn’t open.
“Having the rink in Homer has literally breathed life into my children,” Nicole said. “My son’s whole life is hockey now. He loved (hockey) even before he played -- I don’t know where it came from, but now he has a chance to play.”
During Laukitis’ first three years on the Homer Hockey Association board the organization’s membership grew from 200 to 275, and its 8U program nearly tripled in size, from eight skaters to 23. While connecting Homer’s youth to Kevin Bell Arena was her top priority, Laukitis also went after bigger fish to keep the non-profit rink afloat. She wrote letters to state senators, applied for grants and set up meetings with sponsors. In 2014 she became board president, and during her two-year term she worked to secure the financial future of the organization.
Divas teammate Flyum was already serving on the Homer Hockey Association board when Laukitis brought her energy and tenacity to the table. Flyum said budget issues had loomed over Kevin Bell Arena years before Laukitis joined the board and offered a new approach.
“Our hands were in the air for a while,” Flyum said regarding the association's inability to restructure agreements with the rink’s land and building owners. “We tried talking to the (English Bay Corporation) for a long time, but Shelley got us out into the community and spread a positive message. We had always had budget issues, but she focused on the community and believed the budget would respond, and it did.”
Along with recruiting and teaching new skaters, Laukitis rallied volunteers to staff Kevin Bell Arena.
“With volunteer organizations it’s so easy to rely on a few hard workers, but Shelly knows how to get people involved without putting pressure on them, and she makes sure to recognize when people step up,” Flyum said.
She is vicious on the ice. She will go to the depths for the puck, and she’s usually the one that comes out with it."
- Charlene "Chuck" Flyum on women's hockey league teammate Shelly Laukitis
As Laukitis practiced her diplomacy on the Homer Hockey Association board, her hockey skills – with help from her husband/coach – rapidly sharpened. Between practicing with the Divas and teaching several beginner skating classes, Laukitis has been on the ice at least five nights a week for the last several years. She’s gone from a board-hugging beginner to one of the most valuable players on the Divas.
“She is vicious on the ice,” Flyum said. “She will go to the depths for the puck, and she’s usually the one that comes out with it. She is by far one of our best players, but you would never know it by talking to her.”
At practice, the ever-humble Laukitis spends extra time with the less experienced Divas and, despite her best efforts, is often called upon to lead drills. According to Flyum, Buck makes a point to ask Shelly to demonstrate skills knowing full well that his wife prefers not to receive special attention given their relationship.
“It is a bit of a running joke that Buck will try to call on Shelly, and Shelly will either refuse, encourage him to choose someone else or participate half-heartedly – the only time she does anything half-hearted,” Flyum said. “Buck seems to delight in this little dance, and Shelly is always a good sport. It’s a fun peek into a really great relationship.”
It’s interactions like these that help the people of Homer unwind after the hectic five-month fishing season. Homer sits at the tip of the Kenai Peninsula and is known as the “Halibut fishing capital of the world.” Its population fluctuates between five and ten thousand, based on the season.
In the summer, nearly half of the city’s residents take to the Bering Sea, Aleutian Islands and Kachemak Bay to make their living in commercial and recreational fishing. Since 1988, the Laukitis’ have owned and operated Magic Fish Co., working 18-20 hour days with their daughters, other family members and the occasional Homer High School hockey player.
Shelly Laukitis, a fixture at Homer, Alaska's Kevin Bell Arena, oversees a Polar Tot Skate. Courtesy photo
After fishing non-stop in the summer, Laukitis, like many of her peers, relies on the long, quiet winter to recreate and reconnect with the community.
“Winter is huge because it gives everyone a chance to center,” Flyum said. “I always say the summer wind blows us all over the state and coming back to the rink is totally an ‘ahhh’ moment. It feels like putting a pair of old boots on again.”
For Laukitis, winters at Kevin Bell Arena can be nearly as demanding as summers on the sea. Despite stepping down as Homer Hockey Association president in April, Laukitis still spends several nights a week skating with the Divas and teaching a class of 40 Microbells. The former president, however, loves nothing more than watching the young skaters learn the sport and grow their skills.
“It’s just like the motto ‘The more you give, the more you get back’,” Buck said. “As much as her back hurts from picking kids off the ice, she finds she gets a lot more in return.”