The Kenai River Brown Bears are becoming a popular destination for North American Hockey League players, partly due to the way the central Kenai Peninsula community treats the players.
There’s a good side to this, as the four solid players added recently to the team show.
There’s also a tough side to this, as players that have become popular in the community are released to make space for new players.
Defenseman Connor McGovern and forwards Alec Butcher and Brian Berry have been added to the roster. Soldotna High School product Brad Duwe also will be rejoining the team after not playing last season.
Thus far, two players have left the team. Kellen Wasell was released, while Eric Shand was traded.
Wasell had three goals and eight assists last year for the Bears. He had two assists in seven games this year. Shand had one goal and four assists in 18 games.
Kenai River coach Oliver David said parting with players is never easy, especially players like Wasell that have been here for over a year. He said Wasell became a fan favorite due to his hustle.
“We’re all sad as a staff,” David said. “It’s brutal. As hard as it is for his family and for him to go through this, it’s also tough for us to go through this. It’s the worst part of the job.
“To my downfall in some ways, I want to work hard to make things work out for every kid I bring in and I don’t like it when it doesn’t work out. I feel for the fans that enjoyed watching him play.”
The flip side is the addition of a player like Butcher, who scored in his first game in Fairbanks last weekend. David said the Bears wanted to bring the Anchorage player to the team this summer, but he signed with the British Columbia Hockey League — a popular destination for Anchorage’s best players.
When he was traded from that league, the Bears were able to work out a deal to bring Butcher, 18, to his home state.
David said the positive experience players, particularly Anchorage players, have had with Kenai River is paying dividends. Butcher joins Anchorage players Conor Deal and Alex Jackstadt on this year’s team. Anchorage alumni also have used Kenai River to move on to bigger things, including Bobby Murphy earning a spot with the University of Alaska Anchorage.
“Most of the reason this is happening is because of the experience the players have had in town, to be honest,” David said. “It’s really a testament to the people of our town.
“You hear guys all the time saying people stopped them in the aisle at Fred Meyer or Safeway and knowing their name.”
David said the billet families also add to the experience.
Last year, 11 players from the team or alumni from the team made college commitments, putting the Brown Bears near the top of the league in that category. This year, Albin Karlsson already has a Division I deal.
The community support along with the college commitments has improved the Brown Bears image even though the team has yet to get out of the first round of the playoffs.
“The good image and good name we’ve been able to build is not because we win, but because of the way people are treated and because of the way we structured the organization,” David said. “We’re not a top-five team in this league. We’re not there yet. But that’s the destination.”
McGovern is a left-handed defenseman. He played in just one game for the Austin (Minn.) Bruins of the NAHL this year. He is from Eagan, Minn., and is 19.
Berry, 19, gives the team some size at 6-foot-4, 205 pounds. He is from Aurora, Ill., and, like Butcher, the Bears wanted him this summer but he chose to play in Canada before agreeing to come to Kenai River midseason.
Duwe, 20, is not on the current road trip. The Bears brought 20 players on the trip, and Duwe is one of seven who stayed back in Soldotna to work out with assistant Kyle Bailey.
“The team is excited to have him back,” David said.
In the 2010-11 season, Duwe was third on the team with 50 points. In 2009-10, he was second on the team with 34 points.
David said Nick Shackford, the director of player personnel, has done a great job of stocking the team not only for this year, but for the future.
“Eighty percent of the team is eligible to return next season,” David said. “If this turns out to be one of the better teams, it’s not just a one-year project. It’s a two-year project and beyond.”