Just one month into the season, the Kenai River Brown Bears have already had one player commit to an NCAA Division I school, and two other players nab North American Hockey League West Division Star of the Week honors.
The team obviously has some talent. Just how much talent? Starting today, the Bears will begin to figure that out.
The Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild are in town for a three-game set. The puck drops at the Soldotna Sports Center at 7:05 p.m. tonight and 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday night.
The Wild, coached by the legendary Bliss Littler, have the most points in the NAHL and have the second-best winning percentage.
Littler holds USA Hockey’s Junior A Tier I and Tier II all-time record for career wins and has 19 years of head coaching and general management experience. He has produced 102 Division I players and 22 of his players have been NHL draft picks.
“Obviously, we’re not going to back down,” Brown Bears coach Oliver David said. “We’re up for the challenge of playing the team that is first in the league.
“We’d like to be in the group that’s competitive with the Wild and these games this early in the season will show us where we are.”
The Bears are third in the NAHL West Division with a 5-3-3 record. The Wild lead the division with 19 points, while Fairbanks is second with 16, the Bears are third with 13 and the Fresno (Calif.) Monsters are last with 11.
Kenai River has proved its merit this season by not only rolling up the 13 points — good for eighth in the league — but also by wrapping up some impressive individual accolades.
Forward Albin Karlsson recently became the first Brown Bears player in history to commit to a college before his last year of junior eligibility. Also, goalie Gustaf Johansson and forward Matt Seidel have already been named West Division Star of the Week, no small feat in a division ruled by perennial Robertson Cup favorites Wenatchee and Fairbanks.
Once college scouts got a look at Karlsson, 18, he quickly secured a Division I deal with Niagara University in New York state. Right now, the plan is for Karlsson to start playing there in 2014.
Karlsson came to the Bears from Scandinavian Hockey Consulting, an organization that also has delivered former Kenai River standouts Mathias Dahlstrom, Johan Skinnars and Erik Persson.
It did not take him long to get noticed at the season-opening NAHL Showcase in Minnesota. In his first game, he had two goals against the Johnstown (Pa.) Tomahawks. He added another goal later in the tournament.
David said Niagara was interested enough to follow the Bears to Janesville, Wis., to check out Karlsson there.
“At the Showcase, he was a big-time star,” David said. “He was a dominant player in all the games.”
Karlsson, still a high school student in Sweden via correspondence, said he did not come to America with his heart set on playing college hockey, but said the Niagara deal was too good to pass up.
Niagara gave him a full scholarship. David said most Division I hockey teams have 12 scholarships for 27 players, so many players get half or three-quarters of their tuition covered.
“I have to thank the coaches for giving me a lot of ice time in that tournament,” Karlsson said.
David said Karlsson is not a Division I player yet. He said Karlsson still has to work to become a dominant junior player.
But the coach said the potential is clearly there.
“He has some very skilled individual moments,” David said. “He’s a good skater. He can kill penalties and he’s very good on the power play.”
David said the characteristic that stands out the most about Karlsson is that he is an analytical thinker. He said Karlsson’s main task is to get stronger physically.
“It’s very smart that he’s getting this introduction to hockey in America before going off to play American college hockey,” David said.
The coach said hockey is hockey, but there are differences between North America and Europe, just as there are differences between baseball in Japan and the United States.
“I want to thank the coaches and the team for this opportunity,” Karlsson said.
Johansson, also of Sweden but not from Scandinavian Hockey Consulting, won his Star of the Week award after the Bears’ sweep of the Springfield (Ill.) Jr. Blues on Sept. 21 and 22. He stopped 75 of 76 shots that weekend and had his first NAHL shutout.
Seidel earned his Star of the Week for collecting seven points in the Bears’ home-opening three-game series against the Monsters last weekend. The Bears took two of three from the Monsters.
David, in his fourth season, said the only other Brown Bears player that he knows of that collected seven points in a three-game series is Brett Lubanski, who expired his eligibility after last season and now plays Division I hockey for Holy Cross.
Lubanski turned the trick as a 20-year-old, while Seidel is just 18. Seidel, who is from Troy, Mich., comes to the Bears from the Honeybaked Hockey Club, which has also produced notable Bears such as Lubanski, current three-year defenseman Ryan Walker, Alex Frere and Division I player Doug Beck.
Seidel was drafted two years ago into the United States Hockey League, which is the top junior hockey league in this country. He only played a game for the Indiana Ice, then he did not make the Des Moines Buccaneers for this season.
The Brown Bears also took him in the second round of this year’s NAHL draft, and he has quickly found a niche on the Peninsula.
He leads the team with 14 points and is tied for the league lead in assists with 10. Seidel credits the Bears coaches with helping him understand that solid play in the defensive zone leads to opportunities on offense.
“I was disappointed at first,” Seidel said of his reaction to not catching on in the USHL this year. “Then I found out I was drafted to Kenai.
“I figured I would come here and hopefully play well enough to make it to the USHL next year. If not, I’ll stay here. I really like it here.”
The rapidly approaching winter does not faze Seidel, due to his Michigan roots. He said he likes Kenai River’s commitment to three C’s — college, community and competition. Seidel’s goal is to play Division I hockey, and he said watching Karlsson get a deal so quickly proves the Bears provide a path to Division I hockey.
“I like the feeling of the small town,” he said. “It’s the type of place where everybody knows everybody.
“I walk into a place and people realize I’m a Brown Bear. They realize what I do. It seems like everybody supports you.”
Seidel said the Bears have a lot of young talent and probably won’t completely mesh until around Christmas.
David has similar patience in mind as he looks forward to this week’s showdown with the Wild.
“This series will not be so much about the wins and losses as it will be about gathering data that we can use to improve as we go forward,” he said.