Vince Lombardi said, “The harder you work, the harder it is to surrender.”
That’s why the Kenai River Brown Bears have the best chance in franchise history at success in this year’s North American Hockey League playoffs, which begin today with a 7:30 p.m. tilt in Fairbanks against the defending champion Ice Dogs.
After missing the playoffs in their first year of existence, the Brown Bears have made the playoffs the last three seasons, but have sputtered to an 0-9 record. In fact, the Bears have yet to get within a goal of the opposition in a playoff game, getting outscored a cumulative 47-13.
But Kenai River also has never had to work as hard to make the playoffs as it did this year.
In the 2008-09 season and the 2009-10 season, the Bears had a total of 26 wins, yet made the playoffs automatically because Kenai River played in a division of four teams each year.
Last season, Kenai River improved to 27-24-7 and finished in fourth place by 10 points. But the two teams the Bears beat out — the Dawson Creek (British Columbia) Rage and Fresno (Calif.) Monsters — were in their first year of existence.
This season, the Bears went 31-25-4 to set a franchise record for wins. The Bears needed almost all of those wins because much-improved Fresno, cheered on by a league-leading 3,557 fans per game compared to Kenai River’s 783, went 27-23-10 and fought the Bears for the West Division’s final playoff spot until the final day of the regular season.
The mettle of the Bears was twice tested severely in the playoff hunt.
On Nov. 19, Kenai River was in first place by a point in the West Division. Then came a 3-9 stretch that left the team three points out of the playoffs on Jan. 20. All 12 of those games were in the dead of a snowy, bone-chilling winter in Alaska — against either the Alaska Avalanche or the Ice Dogs.
What happened during the swoon was telling — very little. The Bears got rid of goalie Paul Bourbeau in order to acquire scoring threat Marek Hemsky, but other than that coach Oliver David, who tries to create a family atmosphere from training camp on, stuck with his team.
His team noticed.
“It’s crazy,” defenseman Ryan Walker said at the time. “Even in the NHL, they don’t change systems, they change players. It’s big that Oliver trusted the whole team and kept with us. He didn’t start trading everyone when we started losing games.”
Kenai River then went 4-2-1 on a road trip to climb within one point of Fresno on Feb. 4. After losing three of four to Wenatchee, the Bears reeled off seven points in their next four games to take a four-point lead over the Monsters on March 3.
But the Monsters, and a monstrous flu, weren’t done making the Bears earn their playoff spot just yet. Most of the team, including coach David, contracted a flu for a stretch of six games in nine days.
With players taking IVs and “sickrooms” being set up on road trips, the Bears lost five of those six games, including the last game in that stretch — a 5-0 thrashing by the Avs in which Kenai River was outshot 34-15.
The Bears were now three points behind the red-hot Monsters — who were coming off a sweep at Fairbanks — with just five games to play.
Fresno would close with four points in four games, but that was not enough as the Bears earned nine of a possible 10 points to close the season with a playoff berth.
On the last day of the season, Kenai River proved something that David had been saying about the team since the NAHL Showcase in September — this team does not like to lose.
Kenai River trailed Alaska 4-2 in the third period Saturday, but the game was meaningless in the standings. While the Bears-Avs game was in the second period, Wenatchee had defeated Fresno to put the Wild second, the Avs third and the Bears fourth in the final standings.
Didn’t matter. Kenai River scored two goals in the final five minutes, then won in a shootout. That improved the Bears’ record in overtime and shootouts this season to 13-4.
Fresno was 6-10 in overtime and shootouts. That disparity is the reason the Bears are headed to the playoffs and the largest fan base in the league will sit at home this postseason.
Last season, the Bears were 3-7 in overtimes and shootouts. By the middle of October, David was sure this was a different team.
“It may sound elementary, but when you play in overtime hungry, it’s very different than letting the pressure of overtime get to you,” he said after a shootout victory over the Wild in October. “We really get after it in overtime.”
The Brown Bears are a different team than any in franchise history, but they run into a Fairbanks squad that is its same old dominant self — the organization that has tortured Kenai Peninsula junior hockey fans, whether they were rooting for the Peninsula Hellfighters, the Peninsula Chinooks or the Brown Bears. The Bears are 4-8, including 1-5 in Fairbanks, against the Ice Dogs this year.
Kenai River has never been competitive against the Ice Dogs in the playoffs in the past, going 0-6, giving up 34 goals while scoring just eight, and never losing by less than three goals.
The Bears’ season to this point suggests they won’t surrender so easily this year.