In a developmental circuit such as the North American Hockey League, players and coaches come and go. The trick is keeping a winning culture in place.
That is the challenge before the Kenai River Brown Bears as they prepare to drop the puck on their 2013-14 campaign, taking on the archrival Fairbanks Ice Dogs on Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the Soldotna Sports Center.
The Bears, now in their seventh year, are coming off the two most successful seasons in franchise history. In 2011-12, the team set a franchise record for wins by finishing 31-25-4. The team placed 11 at the NCAA level and lost its top seven point scorers.
But the Bears successfully reloaded despite having just eight returners. Last season, the Bears went 29-25-6 before winning the first two playoff games in franchise history.
But in the NAHL, success on the ice means change off the ice.
Former coach Oliver David was rewarded in the summer by nabbing an assistant’s job in the United States Hockey League, the top junior league in the country.
Seven players aged out from the team, and each moved on to Division I or III schools. Also, the team’s top two scorers — Matt Seidel and Alex Jackstadt — were drafted by the USHL, as was promising defenseman Carson Vance.
Jackstadt is still in the USHL, while Seidel and Vance did not make the USHL, but the Bears have traded away Seidel and Vance for draft picks and tenders.
That leaves nine returners from last season, or 10 if the one game goaltender Kris Oldham played for the Bears last year is counted.
“We have to rebuild every year,” new coach Geoff Beauparlant said. “That’s a testament to the coaching job Oliver did and the organization’s ability to move guys on.”
Beauparlant comes to the Bears from the Ice Dogs, where he spent the last three seasons as an assistant.
The Ice Dogs are a prime example of an organization that keeps a winning culture despite personnel changes.
Under head coach Josh Hauge, Beauparlant won the Robertson Cup in 2011. Hauge then went to the USHL, but head coach Trevor Stewart won the West Division playoffs in 2012 and made the West finals last season.
Beauparlant came highly recommended by Fairbanks’ Rob Proffitt, the three-time NAHL GM of the year.
The Ice Dogs are poised for success again this year, with 14 returners and four players already committed to Division I schools.
“They’ve traditionally been in the upper echelon of the North American Hockey League, so we expect a good test coming this weekend,” Beauparlant said.
Beauparlant, whose squad already has forward Albin Karlsson committed to a Division I school, said the Brown Bears’ credibility with colleges has taken off in the last few years, and his goal is to continue that trend.
That’s why he is so happy to get a chance to play Fairbanks before the NAHL Showcase starts Wednesday.
“This is a lot better than our youthful group having their first game in front of NCAA scouts and National Hockey League scouts at the showcase,” Beauparlant said.
The Bears and Dogs waged an epic battle last season. They finished 8-8 against each other in the regular season, but Fairbanks won the ERA Alaska Cup because two of Kenai River’s wins came in shootouts. Fairbanks then won a nail-biting playoff series 3-2.
There is a lot in the mix to pump up tonight’s game. Home opener. Beauparlant’s first game as an NAHL head coach coming against his former rival. The ghosts of last season.
But the Bears are not getting too carried away.
“We talked about not getting hung up on just Fairbanks,” said returning defenseman Jake Bushey. “This is the first of 60 games. Every game is going to be important.”
The Bears are also under no illusions as to the atmosphere that awaits.
“It’s always intense when we play them because they are our in-state rival,” said returning forward Alec Butcher. “They are a great hockey team with great players, but our goal this year is to get the ERA Cup.”
The Bears also want to return to the playoffs, and that will not be automatic this year, as it was last year in the four-team West Division. With the cessation of the Fresno (Calif.) Monsters, the West Division is no more.
The Brown Bears and fellow West rivals Fairbanks and the Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild were moved to the Midwest Division, along with the Coulee Region (Wis.) Chill and two expansion teams — the Minnesota Magicians and Minnesota Wilderness.
The top four in the Midwest make the playoffs. Because the division schedule is so unbalanced, the Bears must remain competitive with the Dogs and Wild, the Robertson Cup runners-up last year, to make the playoffs.
The Bears play the Dogs 16 times and the Wild 12 times, accounting for 28 games of a 60-game schedule. Kenai River faces the Wilderness five times, the Magicians four times and the Chill, which finished 16-39-5 last season, four times.
The former owners of the Wild moved the team to Texas, but Fresno owner David White moved his organization to Wenatchee. And Wenatchee kept coach Bliss Littler, who has the most junior wins in USA Hockey history.
Beauparlant said that with the nucleus of talent from Fresno, the coaching staff and three players already committed to Division I schools, he doesn’t expect a drop-off in Wenatchee.
“I think our program is steadily growing and reaching that pinnacle with teams like Wenatchee and Fairbanks,” Beauparlant said. “They know when they play us, it’s going to be good competition game in and game out. It’s not a guaranteed win for anybody.
“It comes down to preparation and execution. It definitely benefits our players to be playing against solid organizations every night.”
Last season, the Bears finished 8-8 vs. Fairbanks and 6-4-2 vs. Wenatchee. The veterans said the transition of coaches should do nothing to alter Kenai River’s growing presence as one of the league’s top teams.
“Coach Bo fits the face of the Brown Bears almost perfectly,” said Zack Zulkanycz, a returning forward and Kenai Central product. “He was the right guy for the job.”
And what is the face of the Bears?
“We are a hard-working team,” Zulkanycz said. “That’s the way we compete. We skate hard, hit hard and practice hard.”
Butcher also sees last year’s success carrying over to this year despite all the changes.
“We have a lot of younger players,” he said. “They have a lot to learn. But as long as they have the Brown Bear work ethic and compete every day, they are going to get a lot better.”
Rookie defenseman Tyler Andrews has already gotten the message.
“We’re going to try and win everything,” he said. “We want to be as competitive as possible throughout the year, then play in the last game and win.”