A hockey team follows its captain.
Last week, defenseman Ryan Walker became the fourth Kenai River Brown Bears player to announce a college commitment to Division III Utica College in Utica, NY.
Captain Zac Lazzaro was the first to commit to Utica. Forward Mikhail Bushinski and goalie Marcus Zelzer have since followed.
“All my teammates are going, and I wanted to be a part of it,” Walker said.
Lazzaro is happy to have another Brown Bears player on-board.
“It’s definitely nice to have a group you know going into a new environment,” he said. “You think you know what to expect, but there are always variables and you don’t know until you get there.”
The Pioneers boast one of the top Division III programs. This year, the Pioneers earned a share of the Eastern College Athletic Conference West title, and also were tops with 17 honorees on the conference’s West All-Academic Team. Utica also made the Division III Frozen Four.
The Pioneers play in a home environment that outdraws many Division I programs. Last season, Utica averaged 3,754 fans per game to lead Division III and set another school record. That number also ranks 19th at all divisions of college hockey.
Kenai River Brown Bears coach Oliver David said Utica coach Gary Heenan has been very complimentary of the Brown Bears organization.
“We actually received a note from the Utica head coach,” David said. “He said the strong thing that stood out was the character and maturity level of each of the four kids that he found here.”
David said Walker and former captain Brett Lubanski, who are both from Detroit, are the only Bears to play three full seasons with the team. Soldotna High School product Brad Duwe had played two and a half seasons.
David said it’s hard to be a three-year guy. He said the player has to be ready to play Junior A hockey when he is still eligible for midget hockey. Walker proved that when he was named rookie of the year for the Bears.
But David said the player also must then stay for two more years, not getting traded or deciding to play in another league.
“I came in as a raw, offensively talented defenseman,” Walker said. “I think I’ve improved a lot and turned more into a shutdown D.”
Walker also has made the transition from city living to country living.
“At first, I really wasn’t sure about it,” he said of the move from Detroit. “I fell in love with small-town life. It seems like I know everyone.”
Walker had 17 points in his first season, 24 points in his second season and has 25 points this season.
He said he has learned a lot on and off the ice on the Peninsula.
“Just being ready to play every day and doing what I need to do in terms of school,” he said. “Pretty much just getting after it every day.”