For 10 minutes on a frozen Wednesday afternoon, with the playground all to their own, it was as if nothing ever changed.
There was the Biker Gang, climbing on the jungle gym outside a quiet elementary school, kids once again.
But for Sean Muller, Matt Thompson and Bobby Murphy of the Kenai River Brown Bears — Alaska natives and friends since childhood — it’s different now.
They are 20-year-old hockey veterans, leaders of a winning team, the old guys.
It wasn’t always like this.
“They were raw, they all had talent, they deserved to be here, but they were immature,” said Brown Bears coach Oliver David, who brought this trio to the central Kenai Peninsula in 2010. “They’ve begun the baby steps into adulthood and it’s starting to be put on display in their effort on the ice and the way they handle the team. They are responsible with the team on their shoulders. It’s been a transformation.”
The Bears (15-6-1, 31 points) hope to regain the top spot in the North American Hockey League West Division when they host the first-place Alaska Avalanche of Palmer at 7:30 p.m. today and Saturday at the Soldotna Sports Center.
Muller, Thompson and Murphy, all in their final season with the team, will shoulder a heavy load.
Together, through 22 games, they have combined for 38 points — 16 goals and 22 assists — and helped the Bears to their best start in franchise history.
Murphy, who plays on the first line with captain Brett Lubanski and Alex Frere, is second on the squad with 12 assists. Muller, despite being hampered by a thigh contusion that’s kept him out of six games, is second with eight goals. And Thompson is one of Kenai River’s five players with at least five goals and five assists.
“It’s been a positive start to the season,” David said.
Muller, Thompson and Murphy were fourth, fifth and sixth in points, respectively, when they shared a line during 2010-11.
But each player also experienced growing pains.
The unit had the worst plus-minus rating of any line on the team at negative-31, meaning the Bears yielded 31 more goals than they scored with the trio on the ice. Murphy’s negative-16 tally was the club’s worst.
Muller and Thompson were the only players who committed more than 100 minutes in infractions at 125 and 111, respectively, keeping them off the ice for the equivalent of nearly four games.
Muller, who is Kenai River’s smallest athlete at 5-foot-8, 155 pounds, knew he had to change by cutting down on dumb moves.
“I was definitely reckless last year,” Muller said. “Coach David really helped me out with keeping my emotions in check. The less time I spend worrying about the other team, the more I can spend worrying about myself.”
David said Muller’s passion is something he shares with Thompson and Murphy.
“They are very emotional when they are on the ice, very emotional in practice,” the coach said. “Sometimes it gets the best of them, which is something we are working on.”
All three have made strides.
In 16 games this season, Muller has a plus-6 rating and has been in the penalty box 13 minutes — 12th highest for the club.
Murphy’s plus-minus rating is plus-3. Thompson, meanwhile, boasts the Bears’ fifth-best shooting percentage at .109.
Those numbers, David said, are signs of maturation.
“Every day at practice and in the gym, we have to lead by example,” Thompson said. “We’ve got coach on our back, too, so if we mess up, it’s a big deal.”
It was a long road to get to this point.
Muller, Thompson and Murphy lived in the same neighborhood beginning in about seventh grade and played youth hockey together before high school, when they parted ways.
Muller logged a stint in Las Vegas, Thompson went to Detroit and Murphy landed in Chicago.
Then in the summer of 2010 all three were back in Anchorage to train and David took notice of all three during a recruiting trip. Kenai River, which finished the 2009-10 season in last place, tendered Murphy and Thompson before the 2010 NAHL Draft and eventually signed Muller as a free agent.
With that the Biker Gang, the childhood friends, were reunited.
“We knew that would be exciting,” Thompson said. “Us being in Alaska, we kind of knew the reputation the team had before and we wanted to be a big part of turning that around.”
Added Murphy of the benefits of arriving as a package, “Playing together since we were younger, we know each other’s habits and where we are going to be.”
Since the NAHL imposes an age limit of 20, this is likely the last time they will share ice in a competitive setting.
None have made college commitments, but each of hopes to pursue hockey at the next level, even if it’s overseas.
Knowing it’s their final run together, Muller, Thompson and Murphy are proud of the team’s success — and nostalgic about the journey to this point.
“It’s kind of sad to think about, but we can’t think about it because you also have to keep your mental state of being there for the game,” Thompson said. “You’ve got to keep playing your game and everything will come at the end.”
And while David makes roster decisions and gets final say as coach, he in some ways has handed the team over to this bunch and their fellow veterans.
“They are proud. They feel as if it’s their team, and they feel it’s a great level to be at to try to advance. Those are the kinds of attitudes we like,” David said. “They are playing in front of their families and friends, they are playing together at a highly respectable and competitive level. This is a once-in-a-lifetime situation, a very unique time in life that they are going to remember the rest of their life.”