A few thoughts before the dust settles on the 2012-13 campaign of the Kenai River Brown Bears:
• It did not end the way the Bears wanted to, but it is worth looking back and marveling at the season and postseason series between the Bears and Fairbanks Ice Dogs in 2012-13.
Following a three-game playoff sweep at the hands of the Ice Dogs in 2012, Bears coach Oliver David said his squad had to figure out how to compete with the Dogs because the teams would play 16 times during the 2012-13 regular season.
At the time I was skeptical. The best the Bears had ever done against the Dogs was 4-6-2 in 2010-11.
But David did follow through on his goal. The series between the Bears and Dogs started too close to call, then got closer.
The teams went 8-8 against each other in the regular season, but Fairbanks won the Era Alaska Cup due to two of Kenai River’s wins coming in a shootout. Take away those two goals awarded for a shootout, and the Dogs had 46 goals in the regular season to Kenai River’s 38.
That was just a prelude to a classic playoff clash. The series, won 3-2 by the Dogs, saw the decisive goal come in the second period in the first game. After that, the decisive goals came at 10:32 of the third, 1:46 of the third, 4:09 into overtime and 1:03 left in the third.
“It was as close as it could be in terms of record, goals scored, goal differential,” Ice Dogs coach Trevor Stewart told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner on Wednesday about just narrowly avoiding being the first Dogs squad to lose a playoff series to a team from Alaska. “It was a hard-fought battle every game.
“It wasn’t so much that we beat them, but that we survived them.”
The series wasn’t just good because it was close. The two teams prefer to play a fast, clean brand of hockey where cheap shots are kept to a minimum.
At the end of the series, the respect the two teams had built for each other after playing an uncommon number of times was apparent in the postgame handshake captured by Jaime Schwartzwald of KXD-TV 13. Game highlights from all five games are available on the “salchaboy” channel on YouTube under recent uploads.
To top it off, the rivalry also took place between two squads known for taking care of their players off the ice, performing a lot of community service and moving players onto college programs.
This was junior hockey at its best.
• Now for the next question: The Bears are clearly playing near the level of the Dogs on the ice. What must they do to start matching Fairbanks’ level of Division I commitments, which stands at 10 for this year while the Brown Bears have two?
Rob Proffitt, the North American Hockey League general manager of the year the last two seasons, told me earlier in the year that his method is getting in the inner circle and working hard to stay there.
Proffitt has been the GM of the Ice Dogs since 1997.
“Rob Proffitt has been doing this for over a decade,” David said. “There’s not a lot of groundwork still being laid.
“We’re still laying that groundwork.”
David said it is all about recruiting, getting Division I-caliber players into the Bears program and then developing and selling those players to Division I programs.
“That’s why Nick Shackford is on my staff,” David said of the director of player personnel. “50 percent of his title is getting players recognized at the college level. The other 50 percent is recruiting to our team.”
One key Proffitt talked about is having players that draw Division I attention, so that when scouts come to watch those players, they get a chance to see your whole team play.
David said two players in particular fit that bill this year — defenseman Carson Vance, who is only a junior in high school; and Matt Seidel, a 6-foot-3 forward who just turned 18 in March.
Proffitt said another vital part of the equation is having players pan out at the Division I level, so coaches come back to the program for more. His profile on the Ice Dogs website says that he demands, and not just expects, success in the classroom.
That’s important because David said academics, and not hockey, are the first thing recruiters ask about.
David said he is constantly trying to tweak his program to make the players not just ready on the ice, but in the classroom.
He said every day the players work from at least 9 to 5 on academics, hockey, conditioning and community service.
“We’ve had some pretty good hockey players come here who haven’t experienced things the way we’re trying to do them here,” David said.
• One area where I don’t ever see the Bears matching the Dogs is in attendance. Fairbanks sold out all three of its playoff games with 2,242 fans, while Kenai River did not crack 1,200 at either of its playoff games.
What the Bears lack in numbers, they will have to make up for in passion, and I saw significant progress on that front this season.
Exhibit A was Monday at the Upper Deck Lounge, the viewing spot of choice when the Bears are on the road.
I had to mind the desk Monday night, but crack reporters Brian Smith and Joey Klecka agreed to the tough assignment of keeping an eye on a playoff hockey game at a bar.
The fasthockey feed cut off in the third period with the Bears leading 2-0.
Brian said he was sitting next to a guy who predicted the feed would come on for the last few seconds of the game, in time to watch the Bears go down 3-2.
That’s exactly what happened, leading to widespread disillusionment.
“Dude,” Brian said. “It was bad.”
That’s passion. It may not feel good at the time, but that’s what bonds sports fans together. It’s the same passion I’ve seen growing at the Soldotna Sports Center this year, where nearly all fans are now riveted to the game and not cellphones or goofing off on the upper level of the center, as had been common in years past.
It’s the same passion the Bears will need to continue to survive in an area with such a small population base.
• A final question: What about next season?
The Bears have a ton of talent that is eligible to return. The aforementioned Seidel led the team in goals and has two years of junior eligibility left.
Vince Stefan, who suffered two concussions in the regular season then a broken ankle in the playoffs, still managed to lead the team at plus-17 and has one year left.
The next three top plus-minus performers — Alex Jackstadt, Alec Butcher and Albin Karlsson — all have two years of junior eligibility.
The big question is whether those players will move on to the United States Hockey League, but even that is a good thing for the Bears because sending a bunch of players to the USHL is a boon for recruiting.
“The future is bright,” David said. “It’s a good time to be a Brown Bears fan.”
David, who took over the Bears 12 games into the 2009 season, signed a two-year contract in 2011. He said he remains committed to the organization.
“I’m very proud to be the Brown Bears coach,” he said. “This is my baby. This means everything to me. I’m very interested in what lies ahead. I would never leave this situation just to leave this situation.”
At the same time, if David continues to bring more success to the Bears, those responsible for filling coaching slots higher up the ladder will inevitably notice.
“At this moment, I have not been offered any other job and I have not entertained any offers,” David said. “If things come about, the main reason will be all the work we’ve been able to do here.”
• David took some time to say a few words about each of his departing players after Monday’s game. I didn’t have time to get them in the story due to a tight deadline, but here they are.
Soldotna High School product Brad Duwe played 2 1-2 years for the Bears, taking last season and the first half of this season off before coming back and playing himself onto the University of Alaska Anchorage squad for next year.
He ends his Brown Bears career as the leader in goals, and the leader in playoff points and goals. When Stewart talks about surviving the Bears, part of that is surviving Duwe’s five-point effort and display of classic power-forward hockey in Friday’s and Saturday’s games at the sports center.
Duwe will now carry the Brown Bears flag to UAA, where Brown Bears alum Bobby Murphy already did the organization proud by being named the Most Improved Player this year.
David has worked with each of the four candidates for the open UAA coaching position on the recruitment of players. Shackford has stepped up his effort to lure Anchorage’s players to the Bears, and UAA supporters would love to see the Seawolves keep more talent in-state.
In theory, a relationship that benefits both parties could be fast-developing between the Bears and the Anchorage hockey scene, but as Homer Simpson famously said, in theory, Communism works.
“He’ll be a part of Brown Bear legend,” David said of Duwe. “He’ll be a local hero for years to come. He’ll try and remain part of the team in any way he can.”
The Bears raised a few eyebrows when they traded their second-leading point getter, Lucas Kohls, at midseason for Mikhail Bushinski. But Bushinski put up 16 points in 26 games and was plus-3, signing with Division III Utica College.
“He wanted to come here and we’re glad we were able to get him here,” David said.
Defenseman Ryan Walker played three full seasons for the team and is also committed to Utica.
“He really grew up since he came here,” David said. “He’s a fan favorite, and with everything he’s done for our team, he’ll be impossible to replace.”
Another midseason acquisition was goalie Marcus Zelzer, who lost his first game on Jan. 18, then led the team on a nine-game point streak before getting injured Feb. 9 against Fairbanks.
He came back to lead the team to the first two playoff victories in franchise history, and his save that made the Bears’ 2-1 Friday victory over Fairbanks possible will not soon be forgotten. Zelzer also is committed to Utica.
“That’s the reason why we traded for him — to help us win in the playoffs,” David said.
The coach said Dylan Meier was the first Brown Bears player to make the team from a Tier III squad out of training camp and last an entire season. He had 22 points and will go to Augsburg College.
Forward Chris Nuth played for the Bears for two seasons and will play for Division III champion Wisconsin-Eau Claire next season. He leads the organization of fighting majors.
He provided another season highlight — his scrap with Wenatchee (Wash.) tough guy David Mead precipitated a three-game home sweep of the West Division champ Wild.
“He’s a great hockey guy,” David said of Nuth. “Everybody in that locker room is buddies with him.”
Finally, captain Zac Lazzaro also is slated to go to Utica. He was third on the team in scoring during the regular season and second in the playoffs.
“Lazzaro was captain based on the voting of his peers,” David said. “That says a lot.”
Jeff Helminiak is the Clarion sports editor.