Utica College is quickly becoming Brown Bears East.
Friday, the Peninsula’s North American Hockey League squad announced that Vincent Stefan has become the fifth Bears player in the last two years to commit to the Division III school in Utica, New York.
“It can be kind of hard,” Stefan said Saturday via cellphone. “In juniors, you make a lot of friends and you never know after juniors when you will meet up again.
“I’m looking forward to meeting up with those guys and playing with them again.”
Stefan joins Ryan Walker, Zac Lazzaro, Mikhail Bushinksi and Marcus Zelzer, who all committed to the Pioneers after the 2012-13 campaign.
“It’s a mutual respect,” Kenai River head coach Geoff Beauparlant said. “They know what we’re going to provide in a player and we know they’re going to a program that not only on the ice, but also away from the ice, will hold the players to a high standard.”
Utica averaged 3,631 fans per home contest this season, ranking first in Division III and 22nd at all levels of NCAA hockey.
“The facilities are top notch for a Division III program,” Stefan said.
This past season, the Pioneers finished 16-7-4 and won the ECAC West regular season title for the second straight year. They finished the year ranked No. 13 in the D3hockey.com National Poll.
“They have a rich tradition,” Beauparlant said. “They’ve always had a solid team in arguably one of the most difficult conferences at the Division III level.”
Stefan said the fact that Utica is a small school with small class sizes also appealed to him. His parents, Jean and Art, live about five hours away, so they will be able to watch him often. He said his parents saw him play 10 times or less when he was with the Brown Bears.
If last year’s crop of Bears is any indication, Stefan will get a chance to contribute immediately.
Walker, a defenseman, played in 24 games and finished plus-10. Lazzaro played in 11 and Bushinski in 14, each finishing with three points.
Zelzer got into seven games, finishing 3-2-2 with a 2.77 goals-against average and .912 save percentage.
Stefan played for the Bears for three years. In 2012-13, he had 26 points and was plus-17.
He broke his ankle in the playoffs, but came back this year to play 51 games, notch 17 points and finish plus-8.
Stefan also dealt with two concussions in the 2012-13 season, including one from a car accident.
“Vinny really hit his stride in the last eight weeks of the season,” Beauparlant said. “He was back to playing how he competed last year until the ankle injury.”
Stefan said the concussions and the offseason surgery definitely impacted his season, but he was happy he was able to avoid injury all season.
“I’m looking forward to going into college healthy,” he said.
Beauparlant sees no reason Stefan, whose billet parents were Richard and Patty Eissler, can’t keep trending up at Utica.
“I know he developed a really close relationship with his billet family that was second to none,” Beauparlant said. “We appreciate how he competed, represented the logo and gave everything he had on the ice.
“It will be exciting to watch him grow as a college player.”
Stefan thanked the Brown Bears staff and organization, as well as the Eisslers, for helping him with his dream of playing college hockey.
Bears notes: The Bears have signed Andrew Scofield, a forward out of Minnesota, to a tender. The team has one tender left.
A tender means the Bears have Scofield’s NAHL rights, so he can’t get drafted by another team. ...
The Fairbanks Ice Dogs advanced to the Robertson Cup semifinals with a 3-2, overtime victory over the Wenatchee (Washington) Wild on Saturday in Wenatchee. Just like against the Bears, the Ice Dogs had to go to overtime in Game 5 to advance.