The start of the North American Hockey League finds the Kenai River Brown Bears with a new logo, a changed division and a schedule structured differently than in past years.
But amidst all the transition, the one thing the Brown Bears are really aiming to change is their winless record in postseason play.
The Brown Bears begin their season on the road today at 4:45 p.m. ADT in Minnesota against the Topeka (Kan.) Roadrunners, who compete in the NAHL South Division. Kenai River’s first home game of the season is scheduled for Oct. 5 against the Fresno (Calif.) Monsters.
Not only is Kenai River’s roster looking different this year, but so is the team’s West Division, and the schedule that the Brown Bears will play.
Gone from the West Division are the Dawson Creek (British Columbia) Rage and the Alaska Avalanche of Palmer, the latter moving their operations to Johnstown, Penn., last April. That leaves the division with four teams total — Kenai River, Fresno, the Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild and the Fairbanks Ice Dogs.
Because the top four teams from each division qualify for the NAHL Robertson Cup playoffs, the Bears are guaranteed to see postseason play. The only problem is that although Kenai River has been to the playoffs the past four seasons, the Bears have yet to win a playoff game. The team ended with a 31-25-4 regular season record a year ago, but was swept by Fairbanks in three games in the postseason.
Oliver David returns as head coach for Kenai River for the fourth year, along with assistant coaches Nick Shackford and Kyle Bailey, and said consistent development and improvement from the whole team is what will allow Kenai River to break through in the postseason win column.
“We need to come to work every single day, and it’s an everyday task that we need to improve,” David said. “We might lose games but still show improvement. We might win all our games and not be improving. No matter what the scoreboard says, we need to bank as many days of working the habits correctly and getting as many good days of training until April.”
In a 60-game regular season that extends to the end of March, that leaves the team with seemingly enough time to find the right matchups, but the same goes for their divisional opponents, such as the past Robertson Cup champion Fairbanks Ice Dogs.
“We play against the model franchise of the league, they were franchise of the year last year, they had general manager of the year before that, they won a Robertson Cup, they’ve been to the Robertson Cup three years in a row, and only lost in overtime in the semifinal against the winner last year,” David said. “It’s a lot of chances to learn, because we won’t have teams taking nights off. These guys mean business, and our guys are going to be forced to understand what’s at stake when you play against teams from out of town.”
Fairbanks was the top team of the West Division last year, beating Kenai River and Wenatchee in consecutive best-of-five playoffs to reach the Robertson Cup tournament, where the Ice Dogs dropped out in the semifinals.
This season, the Bears will face the Ice Dogs 16 times in the regular season, four more than last year. In fact, Kenai River will be facing nondivision teams more often as well.
The Bears played four games against teams from other divisions a season ago, going 3-1 in those contests. This year, however, Kenai River plays 20 games against nondivision opponents, one-third of the Bears' schedule, which amounts to 11 different Outside teams, and David said the challenge is welcoming for the team.
“The South Division is arguably the strongest division, other than the West, and we play four out of six teams from the South,” David said. “These are the big teams across the country. In some cases, against all odds, we’re a small club operating as a nonprofit entity, and we are playing the Yankees and the Red Sox every weekend.”
Kenai will be facing Fresno and Wenatchee 12 times each and both feature talented squads. Wenatchee recently hired Bliss Littler, the winningest coach in USA Hockey Junior A Tier I and Tier II history, as the team’s head coach.
“I know him fairly well, we worked together at a USA Hockey national festival about five years ago, and I know his style of play and we’ll know soon enough if things have changed or not,” David said. “I don’t think he would have taken the job if they didn’t have big plans for that team, and he will be a big part of any success that team has. There’s no way his team is not going to be good.”
The Brown Bears placed 11 players from last year on the NCAA level. With that talent gone, however, the alignment on the team is still being worked out.
“We had a team meeting this morning, and I shared with them that the style of the team and line combinations are still up in the air,” David said. “We have a lot of things that have yet to come together, but we do have some talent in the room, and I don’t think we’re replacing anybody that’s left.”
The Bears lost their top seven players in terms of points scored. Big names that left the team for college hockey or other hockey opportunities include Brett Lubanski (67 points scored last season), Alex Frere (43 points), Jesse Ramsey (38 points) and Sean Muller (35 points).
“I think, on a whole, we have good skating defensemen, and that’s important because defensemen have to be flexible and have the ability to move laterally quite quickly and often,” David said. “We have several forwards that have scored at lower levels, so it’s going to have to be proven that they can step up their game and adapt to this higher level of competition.”
This season, the Bears will have eight returning players, the most productive of those being forwards Zac Lazzaro and Chris Nuth and defenseman Ryan Walker. Lazzaro recorded eight goals and 19 assists last year, Nuth had nine goals and 11 assists, and Walker had nine goals and 15 assists.
“It’s going to be an exciting year for us, because we have a small but solid group of returners and it’s exciting to see these new guys come in with so much talent and knowing that, having played in the league, how much that talent’s going to contribute,” Lazzaro said. “We’re going to stay the course all year and every day is a new day so it should be a good year.”
Walker is the only third-year returning player, and David said he expects Walker to be a leader by example, and Walker agreed, saying that his experience has only motivated him more.
“The younger guys are all hungry to win and improve, so that’s big for the team,” Walker said. “They want to make a name for themselves, and so I’m pumped for that.”
Lazzaro returns for his second year, and brings an interesting perspective to the team. For the last couple of summers, Lazzaro said that he has been learning from a true professional — Jim Watson, who won two Stanley Cups with the Philadelphia Flyers in the mid-70s.
“I trained over the summer with Jim Watson in Philadelphia, and I worked on my form because I’m a smaller guy, and it’s all about just trying to be quick and explosive,” Lazzaro said. “He’s a really old-school guy and he’s all about form and technique.
“It’s awesome, he knows his stuff, and this year, I’m working on making plays offensively, because I’m always trying to contribute more there.”
Kenai River also lost goalie Austin Severson in the offseason, but brings two formidable keepers in the form of Sean Healy from Mukilteo, Wash., and Gustaf Johansson from Sweden. David said the competition between the two to serve as starting goalie has only aided in improving their skills.
“It’s a fun thing to watch, because every team either knows they have two good goalies, or they look all year that they have two good goalies,” David said. “Very rarely do you have two that are making a big push. Last year, Severson was a hard worker all the way through, and we made some changes all year looking for another one. It’s a good start.
“We have some defense that can skate, and we have some goalies that can compete.”
Johansson, standing at 6-foot-4, was acquired from one of the top junior programs in Sweden, and is looking to play on the Division I level.
“We were fortunate enough to get wind of that early and commit to him throughout the summer, and he’s here adapting to Alaska and American life in general,” David said. “And Sean Healy is a young goalie, the youngest we’ve ever had, at 17 right now, and he is definitely a top prospect in our league.”
Zack Zulkanycz of Kenai Kardinals fame has also been added to the roster, which should provide some added local support.
“This year, Zack came to main camp in fairly decent shape and was one of the standouts for his style of play,” David said. “I think he’s learning, as opposed to high school hockey, he was one of the top dogs on his high school team, but that’s not how it works when you move up a level.
“He’s a strong kid, he’s great in the corners, not afraid to go to the net, and those are things you can try to implement and he is consistently willing to go to what we call the dirty areas, he’s not afraid to get his hands dirty and do the work.”
Overall, with the agile defense and hard-working offense the Bears will produce this season, David is looking forward to the higher competition this season will bring.
“It’s going to be a very exciting season and we have some unbelievable competition, and the NAHL is just an outstanding place to play your junior hockey career,” he said. “This level sure feels like the big time.”