The Kenai River Brown Bears are done for this season, thanks to a three-game sweep by the Fairbanks Ice Dogs.
That doesn’t mean coach Oliver David and assistant coach Kyle Bailey have time to kick up their feet.
“I haven’t had a day off yet,” David said. “I won’t have a day off until the middle of June. We haven’t stopped working.
“The only difference for Kyle and myself is we go to the office at the rink, but we don’t get on the ice at 1:15.”
The coaches have two main focuses right now — getting aged-out players from last season’s team signed to college and developing next season’s team.
On the college front, Brett Lubanski and Jesse Ramsey have already committed to Division I schools. Lubanski will play at Holy Cross, while Ramsey will be at Air Force Academy.
Mathias Dahlstrom, a goalie on last year’s team, also has committed to Division I Northern Michigan University. Goalie Gabe Grunwald, who saw limited action at the end of the season, had already committed to the University of Wisconsin before he joined the team.
The other commitments have been to Division III schools — Chris Blessing to University of Wisconsin-River Falls, Dominic Granato to Tufts University and Austin Severson to Lake Forest College.
There are four remaining graduating players who have yet to commit — Bobby Murphy, Sean Muller, Matt Thompson and Raymond Stenehjem. David said he his hopeful of finding a school for each of the players.
“In the three years I’ve been here, I’ve had 100 percent placement rate from the Brown Bears to a college,” David said.
Getting college commitments is important, because it encourages players to come play for Kenai River. With the North American Hockey League West Division shaping up as tough as ever next season, Kenai River will need a magnet to draw in good players.
The Dawson Creek (British Columbia) Rage will not be in the NAHL next year. The Rage finished 12-44-4 and in last place in the West this season. The Alaska Avalanche of Palmer are still for sale, and the future of that organization is up in the air.
David said the teams that will be in the West for sure are the Bears, the Ice Dogs, the Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild and the Fresno (Calif.) Monsters.
Fresno led the league in attendance, while Wenatchee was third and Fairbanks was sixth. The Brown Bears were 18th.
David said he welcomes the challenge of playing against the big-market teams. He also was encouraged by the energy fans created in the Soldotna Sports Center near the end of the year, particularly when 1,098 showed up for the playoff game against Fairbanks.
“I think we’ve thrived off going into those buildings, although obviously we’ve been highly unsuccessful in Fairbanks’ building, just like everybody else,” David said.
Assuming the Avs leave Alaska, David said the Bears will have to do a lot more traveling and playing out of the division. There are advantages to this. David said players enjoy traveling and playing teams out of the division. There are also disadvantages. Traveling so much costs more money.
David said the Bears are continually gaining respect in the hockey community, thanks to the hard work of people like general manager Nate Kiel.
“It’s quite the nonprofit,” David said. “It’s extraordinarily fun to be a part of for me.
“A lot of the credit goes to Nate, to be honest. He’s out there raising money and donating money. He makes my job easy. I get to focus on hockey.”
That said, David said drawing hockey talent to the Kenai Peninsula still has its challenges.
“We’re 4,000 miles plus away from any of the hockey hotbeds,” he said.
That means a player has to want to live in Alaska. Parents also have to be OK with getting fewer chances to watch their sons play.
“Even though we’re building a nice club, no matter what, it’s not for everybody,” David said.
The Bears will have to replace the franchise-record 67 points of Lubanski. Ramsey was third on the team in points with 38 from his defenseman’s position.
But David pointed out that the team lost two-thirds of one of the league’s best lines after the 2010-11 season and was still able to improve. Doug Beck had 64 points on that line, while Lubanski had 63 and Brad Duwe had 50. Dahlstrom went on to the United States Hockey League and David said Erik Persson was the team’s top defenseman.
“This probably isn’t the most talent we’ve had to replace,” David said. “It depends how you measure it.”
David said the challenge now is amassing stars from the Midget ranks and getting them to buy into not being the star of the team.
“We have to get them to understand they all have individual roles to play,” David said. “Most kids that come from Midget hockey have been studs on their team.”
The team has already tendered some players. There also will be a pre-draft camp in Anchorage from May 18 to 20, plus tryout camps in Michigan from June 1 to 3 and in Colorado from June 8 to 10.
The 2012 NAHL Entry Draft will be on May 31.