After splitting 16 games in the 2012-13 regular season, then battling in a riveting, five-game playoff series that was not decided until the final minutes, the rivalry between the Kenai River Brown Bears and Fairbanks Ice Dogs would have been hard-pressed to get more interesting.
Well, it just did.
Monday, the Brown Bears tabbed former Fairbanks assistant coach Geoff Beauparlant, 35, to be the franchise’s fifth head coach as it gets set for its seventh season on the ice.
Beauparlant replaces Oliver David, who resigned on June 24 to become assistant coach of the Dubuque (Iowa) Fighting Saints of the Tier I United States Hockey League.
Beauparlant, a native of Georgetown, Ontario, Canada, spent the last three years as the assistant in Fairbanks. In 2011, Beauparlant was an assistant under Josh Hauge when the Ice Dogs won the Robertson Cup, the championship of the Tier II North American Hockey League. Hauge went on to become the head coach and general manager of the Tri-Cities (Neb.) Storm of the USHL.
The past two seasons, Beauparlant coached under Trevor Stewart as the Ice Dogs won the West Division playoffs in 2012 and made the West Division finals last season after that playoff series with the Bears.
Beauparlant also served three seasons under Rob Proffitt, the three-time NAHL GM of the year.
The new bench boss had a front-row seat as the Ice Dogs went 8-8 against the Bears last season, then topped the Bears 3-2 in a playoff series where four games were decided by a goal. The 3-1 victory by the Dogs in Game 1 featured a late empty-netter.
Had Beauparlant not been hired by the Bears, he would have been in Minnesota on Monday for the first day of the Dogs’ main camp in his new capacity as director of scouting and player personnel.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” Beauparlant said of facing his former team. “It’ll be a challenge for both organizations, and for both coaching staffs.
“They are both very familiar with each other’s way of doing things, their systems and their types of players. I definitely feel Trevor and Rob are true friends, and Josh Hauge. I wouldn’t be here without their help and guidance.”
Beauparlant was set to leave the Fairbanks bench this season because his wife, Heather, who is a major in the Army, was transferred from Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks to Fort Carson near Colorado Springs, Colo.
But when David resigned, Beauparlant and his family agreed the opportunity on the Kenai Peninsula was too good to pass up.
The coach said it will be a challenge living apart from his wife and sons Luc, 7, and Ian, 4.
“It’s a challenge we’ve prepared for, for a number of years,” Beauparlant said. “With my wife’s position with the U.S. Army, there was always the possibility she would have to go overseas.”
Nate Kiel, the general manager of the Brown Bears, said Beauparlant’s name stood out from the beginning in a hiring process that would eventually draw 70 applicants.
“We were in contact with his boss, Rob Proffitt, early in the process, and he gave his wholehearted endorsement,” Kiel said. “As a candidate, that put him at the front of the pack from the onset.”
Even though the Bears and Dogs have an intense rivalry brewing on the ice, Kiel said respect between the two organizations is blossoming off the ice.
“Beau’s work ethic and level of detail is second to none,” Proffitt said in a statement released by the Bears. “He will bring a championship attitude that I’m sure the Brown Bear community will accept with open arms.
“On behalf of the Ice Dogs, I would like to wish the best of luck to the Brown Bears, Coach Beau and his family. It has been an absolute pleasure having him work for us and his family be such a huge part of the Fairbanks community.”
Kiel said that Beauparlant had some good competition, including former professional players, those who had been Division III college assistants, USHL assistants and other NAHL assistants.
But the GM said Beauparlant won out because he was strong in all the areas important to the Bears:
• Academics and community — Kiel said the coach had to get high marks for character, be able to show those values in the community, and be committed to the academic success of the players.
Kiel and David built an organization where academics and community service are as important as hockey.
“Our team focuses heavily on academics, athletics and a community-service model,” Kiel said. “In many ways, it’s like in Fairbanks. In other ways, we’re trying to create our own identity.”
Beauparlant attended Penn State University, where he earned his degree in nutrition and helped backstop the Nittany Lions to three straight American Collegiate Hockey Association Division I championships. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree.
“We can’t move guys on to college hockey unless they have the grades, and I expect them to excel in the classroom and the community,” Beauparlant said. “Once we do all of the right things away from the rink, winning takes care of itself.
“Our goal is to win the Robertson Cup. That has to be our goal as a team. But we’re not going to sacrifice things away from the rink to reach that goal.”
In his three years in Fairbanks, Beauparlant saw over two dozen players commit to Division I schools. The Bears do not commit players to Division I schools at that high of a rate, and one of Beauparlant’s main goals is to change that.
“It’s continued excellence away from the rink with the goal of producing more Division I athletes each and every year,” Beauparlant said, when asked how we would like to improve the organization. “I’d like to reach a standard that the organization can meet — between five and 10 Division I scholarships a year.”
• Familiarity with the league and the Bears players — Kiel said those with college coaching experience were very enticing, because those candidates know exactly what it takes to move players to college.
“We had a few candidates who spent quite a bit of time in juniors and went on to the college level,” Kiel said. “But they didn’t have experience in our league, and the challenges we face in the West.”
Beauparlant is probably more familiar with the Bears’ returning veterans than anyone, minus the Bears’ coaching staff last season.
“What excited me is the fact we have a good, core group of guys that I believe will be willing to work hard for the logo,” Beauparlant said. “That’s half, if not 80 percent, of the battle — guys willing to buy into what the organization is doing.”
• Ability to adapt to winters in a small community in Alaska — If there was one area where David, who grew up in the Los Angeles area, admittedly struggled in his four years remaking the team, this was it.
The climate, darkness and small community don’t faze Beauparlant.
“The thing that attracted me the most is the partnership I can have with the communities of Kenai and Soldotna,” Beauparlant said. “I’ve always been a community guy that comes from a small town of Georgetown, Ontario, which had just 15,000 people in it when I was growing up there. I can really relate to that type of atmosphere.”
Beauparlant said the organization that Kiel and David built in the small community of Kenai really appeals to him.
“From the community, to the fans that support the team, every piece resonated with who I am as a person and what I bring to the table as a coach,” Beauparlant said.
As for the climate? Beauparlant is a Canadian who spent his last three years in Fairbanks. Any more questions?
“One of the other criteria we were looking at is if the coach had ever been to Alaska before, and knew what he was getting into,” Kiel said. “With Geoff, we know he’s been able to thrive in the Fairbanks community.
“He’s coming to the Banana Belt. He’ll probably break out the shorts and sandals, he’s so excited to come down here.”
Beauparlant said he knows the central Peninsula is smaller than Fairbanks. The Ice Dogs regularly draw 2,248, while the Bears struggle to get much above 1,000. The new coach said he hopes continued excellence on and off the ice will change that.
“There’s always room to grow,” Beauparlant said. “People who haven’t been to a game should make it a point of getting out to a game.
“It’s great entertainment with kids playing for their future careers and college lives. They’re not being compensated for anything, they are trying to reach a dream.”
Kiel said Beauparlant signed a two-year deal, with an option for a third year. Kiel did not want to disclose the financial terms of the deal. Kiel also said he is finalizing details on a new assistant coach, and will make a full announcement early next week.
However, the Brown Bears Twitter account said Wednesday that the new assistant will be Steve Murphy, who had been scouting the Midwest for the Bears. Murphy is the brother of former Brown Bears player and current University of Alaska Anchorage player Bobby Murphy.
Beauparlant will travel from the state of New York, where he is currently visiting family, to the Kenai Peninsula on Saturday to meet fans and sponsors at the Stanley Ford Brown Bear Classic at Kenai Golf Course. The tournament starts at 9 a.m.
Kiel said there are still opportunities to play in the tournament, but said fans do not have to be golfers to meet the new coach. Fans can show up during the tournament and a meeting will be arranged.
“What I’d like to do is meet as many people as I can,” Beauparlant said. “I can golf anytime. Well, maybe not in Alaska.”