Lately, the Kenai River Brown Bears have been beating teams stocked with players with Division I commitments, so it’s no surprise college interest has picked up in Brown Bears players.
Three Brown Bears announced college signings this week. Soldotna High School product Brad Duwe became the second Bears player this season to get a Division I deal, signing with the University of Alaska Anchorage on Wednesday.
Chris Nuth committed to the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, a Division III school that just won the national championship, while Mikhail Bushinski signed up to join Bears captain Zac Lazzaro at New York’s Utica College, a top-notch Division III program.
Brown Bears general manager Nate Kiel said getting players to college is what makes all the work that goes into the Bears worthwhile.
“It’s a work in progress and it hasn’t been easy,” Kiel said. “We feel we’ve been able to achieve a lot of goals and there’s still a ways to go.
“Attendance has been climbing, the performance on the ice has been great, and coach (Oliver) David has done a great job supporting the players academically and in terms of service projects in the community.”
The Duwe signing, in particular, marks a milestone for the Brown Bears. One of the purposes of the organization at its founding was to make it so young kids from the Kenai Peninsula didn’t have to go thousands of miles away at an early age to pursue a college hockey career.
Duwe is not the first Peninsula player to sign with UAA, but he is the first Peninsula player to come up through the Brown Bears, then sign with the Seawolves. Duwe is also the first Peninsula-grown player to play for the Bears and sign a Division I deal.
“This is huge for us, and we’re very proud of Brad’s efforts,” Kiel said. “We’re excited for him to go to UAA, where I think they have a fine program. We’re excited to have local guys playing in our home state.”
Duwe, son of Todd and Joyce Duwe, was able to sew up a Division I commitment despite taking last season and the first part of this season off.
“It was just for personal reasons,” Duwe said. “I tried to find love for the game again, and figure some stuff out in life.”
He also missed parts of this season due to two concussions. He has eight goals and nine assists in 25 games.
“I’m ecstatic about being able to come back and have the game come back as quickly and easily as it did,” Duwe said. “It wouldn’t have been possible without my teammates helping me out.”
Bears assistant Nick Shackford said schools like Duwe’s 6-foot-2, 203-pound frame.
“His stick skill and shooting capability is one of the best on the team, if not the best,” Shackford said. “He protects the puck better than anyone on the team. He outmuscles defenders and takes the puck to the net.
“He’s the protypical power forward.”
The 20-year-old had a huge season two years ago for the Bears, wracking up 17 goals and 33 assists. The year before, as a 17-year-old, he had 16 goals and 18 assists in 47 games.
Duwe played for Soldotna High School as a freshman and sophomore.
He will walk on at UAA with the intent of earning scholarship money for his performance.
Duwe will join Bobby Murphy, who played for the Brown Bears, on the Seawolves squad. Duwe said he also knows Lee Green, another Soldotna grad who went on to play hockey for the Seawolves.
“Other schools were interested in him, too,” Shackford said. “He could have waited. Ultimately, he wanted to go to school in state.”
Duwe said the accomplishment would not have been possible without help from his parents, teammates and coaches.
Nuth is in his second year with the Brown Bears. He has 10 goals and 13 assists in 57 games this year. Last year, he had nine goals and 11 assists in 60 games.
Like Duwe, Nuth, who is from Trabuco Canyon, Calif., is 6-foot-2.
Wisconsin-Eau Claire has used the North American Hockey League to build one of the top programs in Division III, winning its first national title in mid-March. Of the 28 players on the Wisconsin-Eau Claire roster, 23 played in the NAHL.
Bushinski, of Woodbury, Minn., came to the Bears in a midseason trade. He has two goals and 13 assists in 24 games for the Bears. His totals for the season are eight goals and 24 assists in 60 games.
Earlier in the season, when Lazzaro singed with Utica, David said the Pioneers were comparable to a Division I program in many ways.
The most obvious is in attendance, where the Pioneers led Division III for the sixth straight year, averaging 3,754 fans. That set the record for Division III attendance.
That also put the Pioneers 19th nationally at all levels of NCAA hockey.
Utica advanced to the NCAA Division III Frozen Four at Herb Brooks Arena in Lake Placid, NY, this year. The Pioneers were the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference Men’s West Conference regular season co-champions, posting a program-best 21-6-1 record.