Kenai River Brown Bears goaltender Marcus Zelzer likes to tell the story of getting traded to Alaska in mid-January and expecting to step off the plane and be greeted by brutal wind and cold only to be greeted by rain.
Alaska wasn’t what Zelzer expected from the get-go and that’s why he committed to Division I Michigan Tech on Tuesday.
When Zelzer was traded from the Aberdeen (S.D.) Wings in early January with just a few months of junior eligibility remaining, he wasn’t happy with his college options.
“I really just had some Division III schools,” he said. “As soon as I came to Kenai, coach Oliver (David) and coach (Nick) Shackford went out on a limb for me. I really owe them a lot.”
David said the Bears, first and foremost, are about getting players to college. Just because a player will only be on the Peninsula for a few months doesn’t mean everything won’t be done to help that player.
The coach said junior hockey players leave home at a young age, sometimes as young as 16, and play in multiple cities to pursue a higher level of hockey. David said the players are owed something for that commitment.
“It’s our job to move these kids on,” he said. “We create an environment to prepare them for where they are going once they leave here.”
Zelzer can attest to that.
“Everything about Kenai surprised me,” he said. “I really wish I could have played all three years there. Everybody was really friendly. The coaches care about you. And the billet families do things like make family dinners for team meals.
“It was one of those things where I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. But once I was there a couple of days, I was as happy as could be.”
Zelzer, who stayed with billet parents Chris and Carmen Stephl, paid the Brown Bears back by backstopping the squad to new levels on the ice. He went 6-2-2 with a 1.84 goals against average and .933 save percentage in the regular season.
In the playoffs, he won the first two playoff games in Bears history before Kenai River lost a nail-biter of a series to Fairbanks in five games.
That was enough to spark the interest of Michigan Tech. David said Steve Shields, the goalie coach for Michigan Tech who spent 10 seasons in the NHL, is a big goalie just like the 6-foot-3, 200-pound Zelzer.
Zelzer will walk on for his first year as the third goalie on the roster and work to earn playing time.
“If you’re looking for a guy that’s going to compete for ice time, he’s your guy,” David said. “His compete is nonstop. He’s very competitive. That’s probably his strongest trait.”
Zelzer is from Green Bay, Wis. Michigan Tech is in Houghton, which is on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. That’s just a 3 1/2-hour drive for Zelzer’s parents, Patrick and Jill Zelzer, to watch their son play.
Zelzer left the state of Wisconsin as a sophomore in high school to pursue his hockey dream.
“It’ll be my seventh year, and I never will have been closer to home,” he said.
Michigan Tech plays in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, which means Zelzer will travel to Alaska to play the University of Alaska Anchorage and former Bears teammate Brad Duwe.
“I definitely look forward to going back to Alaska,” Zelzer said. “I’d like to thank everybody in Kenai and everybody in the Brown Bears organization for what they’ve done for me.”
Zelzer is the eighth player on the Brown Bears to earn a college commitment this season. Three came from Division I schools — Zelzer, Duwe and Albin Karlsson. David said all the aged-out players have college commitments.
Bears notes: David said that Shackford, the director of player personnel, has left the team due to an illness with a family member on the East Coast. David said Shackford won’t be back with the Bears, but may pursue hockey opportunities on the East Coast. ...
David said the Bears are happy to have tendered two Alaskans in advance of the NAHL draft on June 4. Teams use tenders to lock up players they don’t want to risk not getting in the draft. The Bears have used all their tenders.
One tender has been used on Chancie Hanson, a defenseman from Wasilla who just helped the North Iowa Bulls to the USA Hockey Tier III national title. Hanson was plus-23 in 29 regular season games this year. He is a 1993 birthdate so he will have one year of eligibility for Kenai River. The other went to Kris Oldham, the 15-year-old goalie who, as an affiliate player, defeated the league runner-up Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild 7-5 this year at the Soldotna Sports Center. …
David said the Bears’ success on the ice and in getting college commitments is paying off. He said the just-concluded Alaska tryout camp was the most succesful ever, and he’s expecting the same this weekend in Colorado.
“We even had some fans make the trip to watch the camp,” David said. “We’ve never had that before. It’s nice to see people taking an ownership in the team.”