Tuesday, Kenai River Brown Bears goaltender Marcus Zelzer, who came to Alaska with the goal of seeing a moose, was eating dinner with his host parents, Chris and Carmen Stephl of Soldotna, when he turned around.
“There was a moose 2 feet away,” Zelzer said. “It was pretty ironic because I was eating moose at the time.”
Yep. Everything seems to be going right for the 6-foot-3, 200-pound goaltender from Green Bay, Wis., since he was acquired in a trade from the Aberdeen (S.D.) Wings on Jan. 10.
Zelzer got his first start on Jan. 18, and since then he is 5-1-2 with a 1.96 goals against average and .925 save percentage.
“They’ve also made me fish,” Zelzer said of his billet parents. “I thought I was having the best salmon in the world out of Lake Michigan. It’s crazy.”
What’s crazy is how the Bears have been able to sustain a season-ending knee injury to goaltender Gustaf Johannson — the lone player on the team named the West Division Star of the Week twice — and not miss a beat thanks to Zelzer.
“Gustaf did a great job getting us to where we were, but I think we reached a ceiling with him as he started to have more pain and his production level declined,” Bears coach Oliver David said.
The coach said the team was shopping for a goaltender because it knew about Johansson’s declining health. The Bears were able to close the deal on Zelzer the day before Johannson played his last game.
But there was no guarantee Zelzer would be able to fill the pads of Johannson, who finished 12-10-2 with a 2.66 goals against average and .925 save percentage.
Last season, Zelzer went 15-11-2 with a .919 save percentage for Aberdeen in earning the starting spot. This year, he had a 6-13-1 record with an .895 save percentage at the time of the trade. The Wings were 2-11-3 when Zelzer was not in net.
“We were a young team, and inexperienced,” Zelzer said. “It was tough, but it was a good experience for me.
“You learn something from everything. I saw a lot of shots and got to face a lot of different situations.”
David said part of the reason the Bears were confident bringing Zelzer to the Peninsula was that Zelzer had played at Shattuck-St. Mary’s, a prep school with a powerhouse hockey development program in Minnesota, with Mikhail Bushinski and assistant captain Jake Davidson. Nick Shackford, director of player personnel, also said he made a bunch of calls about Zelzer and heard a bunch of good things.
“I just told them that he’s a good guy and he’s a good goalie,” Davidson said.
Zelzer said he already had a comfort level on the Peninsula due to the presence of Davidson and Bushinski. He also was looking forward to experiencing Alaska and getting a fresh start on the ice.
Then in his first game for Kenai River, Zelzer gave up two goals in the last 6:56 as the Bears lost 3-2 to Janesville (Wis.) on Jan. 18 despite outshooting the Jets 52-23.
David made the team skate for 45 minutes after the loss.
“I think that made us closer as a team,” Zelzer said. “It also gave me more incentive not to give up goals, because I don’t want to skate.”
David said he had never skated a team that played as well as the Bears had in that loss, but he was confident he had a team of competitors — competitors like Zelzer.
“The best thing about Zelzer is he wants to win the game for his team,” David said. “He is ultra-competitive.
“I’m completely convinced in all my years in coaching, and all the years I’m hoping I have ahead of me, the No. 1 most important trait is compete level.”
David compared Zelzer’s compete level to that of Austin Severson, the Bears’ all-time leader in wins for a goalie.
After the Janesville loss, the Bears picked up points in their next seven games and carry that streak into today’s game against Fairbanks.
“Sometimes, all it takes is a change of scenery to help players,” David said.
Besides the moose, another of which was spotted out the window while Zelzer was conducting his interview, the goalie said he appreciates the structure of the organization.
The Bears have a study hall each day. They also get to the rink early before practice to warm up. Finally, Zelzer said coaches will break down tape if he wants.
“There’s no distractions here,” he said. “Everything is just focused on hockey.”
Zelzer loses junior eligibility after this season and wants to find a college that is a good academic and hockey fit.
In the meantime, he said he is looking forward to helping the Bears in the regular season and postseason.
“It’s been a team effort,” he said. “The defense has been playing really well — boxing out and coming back. The forwards are backchecking.
“The defense and forwards are the ones doing all the work.”
So with moose crossed off his wildlife checklist, is Zelzer bummed out that he’ll be gone before the brown bears wake up?
His response was as quick as his glove hand.
“It’s not a big deal. I see 22 of them every day.”