The Kenai River Brown Bears will be part of a new six-team Midwest Division, under realignment announced by the North American Hockey League on Friday.
Joining the Brown Bears in the Midwest will be the Fairbanks Ice Dogs, the Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild, the Coulee Region (Wis.) Chill, the Minnesota Magicians and the Minnesota Wilderness.
The Brown Bears know former West Division rivals Fairbanks and Wenatchee well. Both have traditionally been amongst the top teams in the league.
A caveat with Wenatchee, last year’s runner-up at the Robertson Cup, is that the whole roster moved to become the Rio Grande Valley (Texas) Killer Bees because the city and last year’s ownership group could not reach an arena agreement.
But Fresno (Calif.) Monsters owner David White moved his franchise to Wenatchee and took the Wild name. White also kept coach Bliss Littler in Wenatchee. Littler is the winningest junior hockey coach in USA Hockey history.
Coulee Region finished 16-39-5 last year, good for last place in the Central Division.
Both Minnesota teams are expansion franchises. The Wilderness will be coached by Corey Millen, former coach for the now-defunct Alaska Avalanche of Wasilla.
While the realignment is set, Brown Bears general manager Nate Kiel said the NAHL has not told teams which teams they will play and how many times they will play them.
Until that information is available, Kiel said he won’t know how the realignment will impact the Bears’ budget. That schedule matrix is expected in a few days, and Kiel said a schedule could fall into place quickly thereafter.
Since the Bears’ primary purpose is to get players college commitments, Kiel said he is excited the new schedule will have the Bears playing games near the scouting hub of Minnesota.
“I think that all means our players will get more exposure than they’ve even gotten in recent years,” Kiel said.
Kiel also said he thinks the realignment could mean a schedule that is more enticing for fans. A six-team division will mean more variety for fans.
Although Kiel said the playoff format has not been announced, he assumes all six teams won’t automatically make the playoffs. Last season, in the four-team West, the Bears automatically made the playoffs, sucking some drama from the season.
Kiel also said he thinks the Bears will be able to put a large number of home dates on Friday and Saturday night.
“We’re going to have a lot of variety in our schedule, and I believe we’ll be able to keep nonprime dates to a minimum,” he said. “That helps a lot in terms of us being able to draw fans.”