Kenai River Brown Bears forward Alec Butcher verbally committed to Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., Monday, becoming the second player on the team to earn a Division I commitment this season.
Sebastian Fuchs committed to the University of Denver earlier this season. Albin Karlsson committed to Niagara University last season, while Brown Bears alumni Alex Jackstadt has committed to the University of Alaska Anchorage.
“It feels pretty good,” said Butcher, whose Bears begin a three-game series with the Austin (Minn.) Bruins on Thursday at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex with a 7 p.m. puck drop. “I’m pretty excited for next year.
“They’re bringing me in a year early, so I want to be ready and up for the challenge.”
Butcher, who is from Anchorage, has a 1994 birthdate, so he is eligible for another year of junior hockey. But Sacred Heart is ready to take him now.
Karlsson also has a 1994 birthdate, but Bears head coach Geoff Beauparlant said Niagara is taking Karlsson a year early as well. Both Sacred Heart and Niagara are in the Atlantic Hockey Association.
“It’ll be exciting for him and Albin to be in the same conference,” Beauparlant said. “It’ll be exciting to see them go head-to-head because they are used to playing on the same line.”
Butcher, the son of Allen and Laurie Butcher of Anchorage, said the one down side is that he won’t get to play with his brother Evan, who is tendered by the Bears for next season.
“I would have loved the chance to play with my little brother,” said Butcher, the billet son of Dan and Lisa Zulkanycz. “At the same time, this was an opportunity I couldn’t refuse and I took it.”
Butcher’s commitment continues to show Alaska players can make Division I through the Brown Bears. He joins the list of Jackstadt, Anchorage’s Bobby Murphy of UAA and Soldotna’s Brad Duwe of UAA.
“It’s all about fit and finding a place where you can excel,” said Butcher, who also spent time in the British Columbia Hockey League and Central Canada Hockey League.
Sacred Heart is currently 7-19-0 overall and 6-13-0 in the AHA. But there are only three seniors on the roster and Beauparlant said the coaching staff really likes the freshmen and sophomore classes, plus next year’s incoming recruits.
“The way I see it, there’s only one direction they can go, and that’s up,” Butcher said.
The jump to Division I hockey is a big one, but Butcher doesn’t expect to spend a lot of time in transition.
“I expect to go in and play a pretty big role and play every night,” he said.
Butcher, who led West to a state hockey title as a sophomore, is tied for the North American Hockey League scoring lead with 49 points.
Last season, the 5-foot-11, 175-pounder had 30 points in 41 games.
“We’re very proud of Alec’s accomplishments both on and off the ice,” Beauparlant said. “He was a good student in high school, and that is one of our criteria.
“He had a year and a bit of solid, high-end hockey for us, and it’s always nice to see kids move up, whether they are from Alaska, California, Michigan or Minnesota.”
Beauparlant said Sacred Heart offers a great education. Butcher said he is keeping an open mind, but leaning toward majoring in business.
Bears trade Bushey to Ice Dogs for Campbell
Tuesday, Beauparlant also announced the trade of defenseman Jake Bushey to the Fairbanks Ice Dogs for defenseman Ben Campbell.
Bushey had 19 points in 39 games for the Bears this season and was a minus-2. Last season, Bushey had 17 points in 54 games and was a minus-11.
In his final year of junior eligibility, the 6-foot-0, 190-pounder stamped himself as a top prospect by getting called up to the Tier I United States Hockey League for a few weeks earlier in the season.
Campbell, who still has one more season of junior eligibility, has 14 points in 45 games for the Ice Dogs this season, and is a minus-7.
“From both sides, we’re looking to maybe jump-start each boy,” Beauparlant said. “As we’ve talked about in the past, Jake has been kind of up and down since coming back from Dubuque.
“Hopefully, this will kick-start him to a Division I career.”
Beauparlant said Campbell, at 6-1, 185, provides a physical presence on the back end.
“He has Division I potential,” Beauparlant said of Campbell. “He is one of those players who really improved since he came to Fairbanks last year.”
Bears acquire a new forward
The Bears also announced Tuesday they have acquired forward RJ Salvato from the Lone Star (Texas) Brahmas for assets.
Salvato, 6-2 and 170 with a 1994 birthdate, has three goals and six assists in 35 games this season.
“He led his team in scoring last year, but it could be a matter of it not being the right fit or the correct role for him in the South (Division),” Beauparlant said. “He’s a 94 guy, so he’ll be around next year as well.”
Andrews gets runner-up for Defenseman of the Month
This week, the Bears’ Tyler Andrews was runner-up in the contest for NAHL Defenseman of the Month.
Andrews is a 6-2, 190-pound defenseman who captained Dimond to a state hockey crown last season. He has a 1994 birthdate.
“It’s fun to watch him play,” Beauparlant said. “He can go from laying a guy out to rushing the puck, and then he’s got one of the hardest shots on the hockey club.”
Bears face crucial series with Austin
Kenai River comes into the Austin series one point out of the playoffs.
Fairbanks leads the division with 64, while the Minnesota Wilderness have 56, Coulee Region (Wis.) Chill have 52, the Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild have 49 and the Bears have 48.
Austin is third in the league with 57 points.
“We want to get the effort back to where we expect it to be every time we play,” Beauparlant said. “I thought we were missing a bit of that last week.
“This week, I expect the guys to be ready to go.”
Kids get into the game free Thursday. Friday, with a 7:30 p.m. puck drop, is sponsored by Kenai River Pizza, while Saturday, with a 7:30 puck drop, is sponsored by Stanley Ford.
The featured players are Christian Luiten on Thursday, Andrews on Friday and Frankie Spellman on Saturday.