The Kenai River Brown Bears have come from a team that went 12-38-8 in its first year of existence in the 2007-08 season to a team that has been over .500 in each of the past three seasons.
Yet the Brown Bears have never had a full-time general manager. Until now.
Nate Kiel recently retired after 26 years of teaching with the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District to become the full-time GM for the Brown Bears.
“We will miss him,” said Jim Beeson, the assistant principal at Kenai Central. “There’s a lot of things he did for the kids that people did not even notice.
“He’s probably the funniest guy at the school. He’s a fun guy to have at the school. He’d do anything we would ask him to do.”
In the Bears’ first season, Mike Flanagan was the coach and general manager. After that, Kiel took over as GM, but he always had to balance that with being a teacher at Kenai Central.
“For me, it’s been on overwhelming job the past five years,” Kiel said of pulling double duty. “I want to do everything I can to ensure we keep the program here for the long run.
“I hope we can do that as long as the community continues to buy in.”
In Kiel, the Brown Bears get a full-time general manager with deep roots in the community and in hockey.
Kiel said his family moved to the Kenai Peninsula when has was about 6 years old. While at Kenai Central High School, Kiel discovered hockey and fell in love with the game.
After graduating from Kenai Central in 1980, Kiel said he had an injury that kept him from going to college in the fall. He said hockey coach Bob Bird, who recently retired after 34 years with the district, offered him an assistant coaching job for the hockey team for the 1980-81 season. That stoked the desire of Kiel to coach hockey.
After two years of junior college, Kiel gave credit to Bird for steering him to Bemidji State University. There Kiel majored in learning to teach the social sciences, and minored in coaching hockey.
In 1983-84 season, Kiel was a manager on a Bemidji State team that went 31-0-0 and won the Division II national championship. The coach was the legendary R.H. “Bob” Peters, who won 702 games and 13 national titles at Bemidji State.
“I always told my players in high school that it was the perfect storm for me,” Kiel said. “I got to have my head in the huddle for some of the biggest games imaginable.”
In 1987, Kiel returned to the Peninsula and spent a year teaching at Kenai Middle School before spending 25 years at Kenai Central.
He had two separate stints as the head coach of Kardinals hockey. During a break from being head coach, Kiel played a big role in getting the Kenai Multipurpose Facility built. Kiel said he takes pride in the fact the facility will offer summer ice this year — the first time ice has been in for a full summer on the Peninsula.
When the Brown Bears organization was formed, in 2007, Kiel volunteered as a scout before taking over as GM the next year.
“I’ve seen what an opportunity this program is for the community,” Kiel said. “Not just on the ice, but in so many facets.
“We provide 30 game nights, other activities and develop young student-athletes. I was able to take what I learned in school and use it to get kids out doing community service projects.”
The Bears play in the North American Hockey League. This season, the league got 166 players NCAA commitments, or roughly one-third of the players on NAHL rosters. Of those 166, 99 were to Division I schools.
It’s a big-time league, and Kiel is not about to say that does not present challenges for the relatively small population base of the central Peninsula.
“It’s a big animal to feed, if you will,” Kiel said. “There are enormous travel costs because we have to travel Outside. Almost all the other teams travel to play their opponents on buses.
“I like to say they take $2,000 bus rides, we take $20,000 plane rides.”
Despite the challenges, Kiel said a number of factors have allowed the Bears to run a balanced budget. Kenai River became a nonprofit entity starting in the 2008-09 season.
“When I came on board five years ago, the No. 1 thing that had to happen is we had to slash our budget to the bone,” Kiel said. “We had to find a way to cut tens of thousands of dollars here, there and everywhere.
“We cut just about everywhere we could cut. The last couple of years, we’ve been building it up a little more.”
Kiel said the only paid positions are the head coach, an assistant coach and the general manager. He said one of the keys to the Bears’ success is volunteers. On game nights alone, he said 25 or more volunteers will be on duty.
“To me, that is what makes us special,” he said. “We have people who have given of themselves because they have a passion for this, and want to see this thing work.”
Kiel also said the city of Soldotna, and the city of Kenai for Kenai events, also been a key for the franchise. Squabbles with an arena over lease agreements have sunk many a junior franchise.
But even with those factors, those planes still cost money.
“This past year, we passed the 100 mark for business partners — from small business to large industry and corporate support,” Kiel said. “That, and we’ve continued to increase attendance.”
Kiel said this past year he even had businesses approach him at games about getting involved with the Bears, which was unheard of two or three years ago. He also said the Bears have had growing success selling merchandise — both on the Internet and at games.
But Kiel said the financial battle is far from won.
“We’ve been able to do it treading water or just above water,” Kiel said. “We can’t rest on our laurels. We can’t sit idly by. We have to get attendance up. That’s one of the things I hope I can accomplish.”
Kiel has a number of things he would like to accomplish now that he is full time.
He would like to give head coach Oliver David more support in developing the Bears into a championship program and one of the top junior programs in the country. David, who led the Bears to their first two playoff wins in franchise history last season, recently signed a one-year contract extension.
“He has bought into what we are trying to do wholeheartedly,” Kiel said. “He’s really molded this program into his own program. He has a moral compass and he has what it takes to lead these young men in a small town.”
Kiel said he would like to boost attendance by forming a Brown Bears booster club. He also would like to do more with season ticket sales, group ticket sales and corporate ticket sales.
He also would like to try and get more high school hockey alumni to attend the games.
“Some people have come to the games and told me they had no idea of the quality of this level of hockey,” Kiel said. “They thought it was kind of a glorified high school all-star game.
“As we know, it is some of the best 16- to 20-year-olds across the country.”
Kiel also will continue to try and drum up as much sponsorship off the ice as possible, as well as holding events like the Stanley Ford Brown Bear Classic on July 14 at Kenai Golf Course.
He said he will emphasize what the Bears do for the economy, not only by spurring economic activity on game nights, but by giving the Peninsula exposure by playing games and holding tryout camps across the country.
“We’ve gone through rocky times on the scoreboard and with our business model, but with 35 founders and over 100 sponsors, we’ve overcome that,” Kiel said. “We can’t rest. We’re going to have to hit it hard and do an even better job of taking our message to the community.”