Former St. Louis Park three-sport standout Jonny Sorenson used the launching pad of the Fairbanks Ice Dogs to the University of Minnesota.
The vast and remote frontier known as Alaska makes the state a breeding ground for legends.
The Brooks Range, the bush villages, the unforgiving nature of life near the top of the world makes it challenging for an individual to write their own history so deep into the wilderness.
Jonny Sorenson’s exploits on a basketball court at a Fairbanks workout facility might not make it into the Alaskan canon, but they made his head coach’s jaw drop.
“I walk into the gym, to the basketball court, and there’s Jonny dribbling down the floor,” Fairbanks Ice Dogs’ head coach Trevor Stewart says six months after the incident. “Next thing I know, he elevates and dunks over one of our guys.”
In terms of playing sports away from the arena, hockey players are typically on a manicured green shooting north of par, not posterizing their teammates.
“If I remember correctly, it wasn’t really over anyone,” Sorenson said. “But it was my first time dunking, so it was pretty cool.”
On the ice, Sorenson has been pretty cool, too.
After recording moderate point totals for the St. Louis Park hockey program, Sorenson exploded for 26 goals and 71 points for the Ice Dogs in the North American Hockey League, leading the team to the Robertson Cup finals. Sorenson’s outstanding play also netted him the NAHL’s Rookie of the Year Award, First Team All-NAHL Rookie honors, and a scholarship to the University of Minnesota.
“I was in the perfect situation in Fairbanks,” Sorenson said, admitting that the junior hockey outpost isn’t for everybody. “Being up there was the first time I was able to focus on just hockey. The organization’s just awesome. They push you every day.”
Yes, the first time Sorenson was able to put all of his energy toward hockey came less than a year ago, when Stewart and the Fairbanks coaching staff were intrigued enough with his athleticism and potential to offer a tender.
As seemingly rare as the three-sport athlete has become among elite hockey players, and as specialization forces players at younger and younger ages to spend all 12 months on skates, Sorenson is an accidental iconoclast.
A standout in both football and baseball for St. Louis Park, Sorenson excelled enough on both fields to earn multiple offers from Division III programs to play both sports while leading the Orioles to their first (and currently only) state football tournament and being the team captain for all three teams.
“That’s one of the great things about St. Louis Park, is that it’s a community that, compared to some other communities, kids can play three sports at the varsity level and have success,” former Orioles hockey head coach Colin Hohman said, adding that the majority of his last team at St. Louis Park featured numerous three-sport athletes. “The potential was always there (for Sorenson), but it really took off once he committed to hockey full time.”
Sorenson said that Stewart and the rest of the Ice Dogs’ staff made it known early in the process that Sorenson had work to do on his game.
“When I had my first meeting up there with (Stewart) and the other coaches, they said ‘you’re going to have to be the first one on, last one off every day’,” Sorenson said. “They said they knew I had some potential, and they were excited to see what I could do.”
Like any player adjusting to a new level of play, Sorenson experienced the routine growing pains, trying to catch up with players that had spent their boyhoods dedicated to a single athletic pursuit.
“The first couple weeks of the season was really tough,” Sorenson explained. “Just because not only had (the veterans) had been playing together, (but) adjusting to the speed of the league in general. Once a couple of weeks went by, I think it was after the showcase in September, and I started picking up on everything,” Sorenson added, chuckling about the scouting meat market that is the NAHL Showcase, played in September at the Schwan Super Rink in Blaine.
Sorenson is open about the fact that his ultra-varied athletic background gave him some advantages, but also blocked him from picking up on a handful of hockey’s intricacies that separate full-time players from the others.
“I developed a lot physically, but more importantly I developed mentally,” Sorenson said. “I think I learned the game better, and from never really focusing on hockey, I think that was what I was closed off from the most.”
Once placed on a line with Elk River native Jax Murray and the pride of Hanahan, South Carolina Parker Brown, Sorenson got more comfortable and began adding wrinkles to his game.
“He’s competitive, and he’s got athletic ability,” Stewart said of Sorenson. “He’s still got to learn a ton about the game, and he knows that but he’s willing to do it and he’s working at it.”
Sorenson totaled 26 goals and 71 points in his lone season with the Ice Dogs. Photo courtesy Fairbanks Ice Dogs.
Working at it is nothing new to Sorenson, but consistently winning at a high level was a foreign concept before his arrival in Fairbanks.
Sorenson never played in a hockey state tournament, with his group at St. Louis Park running into the Edina buzzsaw for three straight seasons in the Class 2A, Section 6 playoffs. With Sorenson, Clarkson verbal commit and the first Minnesotan selected in the USHL’s Phase II Draft Luke Mobley, and Alabama-Huntsville forward Bauer Neudecker dotting the lineup, the Orioles were talented, but not deep enough for a March run.
“Technically we could’ve played single-A hockey,” Hohman said, explaining that the Orioles were an opt-up program during Sorenson’s junior and senior seasons, eschewing the likely chance to play at the Xcel Energy Center in the Class 1A State Tournament. “The kids ultimately drove the decision that they wanted to play the best competition. I mean, if you would’ve seen the number of texts I got from kids on the team saying we need to opt up. It was a pretty staggering thing when you’ve got 14 kids telling the coach (that) we want to move up.”
It’s been that way since Sorenson, Mobley, Neudecker, Atticus Raasch, Willy Basill, and the other seniors in Hohman’s final season (2018) were coming up through the youth ranks.
“The only time Jonny Sorenson beat Wayzata in an organized game, whether it be Peewees, Bantams, or high school, the game January of his senior year was the only time,” Hohman said. “You might not have a winning record in Bantams, but you never know what that Bantam might go on to do if he’s provided the opportunity to play against the best.”
In addition to Sorenson, “the best” are also headed to Dinkytown this summer, offering a unique social situation for the Oriole who never showed up to a hockey game in his football cleats or with his baseball glove in hand.
“I haven’t really met anyone on the team, but it seems like we’ve got a good group coming in, talent-wise and personality-wise,” Sorenson said.
When hockey players arrive on a college campus for the first time, the first day of class can feel like a reunion. Some players have formed bonds with each other from years of competing with each other on elite AAA teams or against each other during Tier I tournaments across the continent.
That won’t be the case for the former quarterback and outfielder Sorenson.
“I wouldn’t trade what I did,” Sorenson said. “I’m really happy I played all three, just grabbing everything from all these different sports and just learning and then finally focusing on one.”
Hohman hopes that Sorenson’s path will help alleviate some of the pressure youth hockey players feel to give up their other sports or interests.
“It’s a pretty fascinating story of a different path that a lot of kids maybe don’t feel is an option,” Hohman said. “Hopefully for younger kids out there and the parents of younger kids that there’s another way to do this. Let the kids be kids and figure it out once they’re a little older.”
Sorenson's former teammate at St. Louis Park, Luke Mobley, also played for the Ice Dogs for part of last season.