Now that the Kenai River Brown Bears are saved, Josh Petrich will be one of the main people responsible for making sure they become strong and healthy again.
Petrich, 28, was named the seventh head coach in Brown Bears history on Thursday as the organization prepares to embark on its 11th season.
It’s a season that once looked very unlikely to happen. In late February, Nate Kiel, general manager, announced the team would be inactive for the upcoming season. But a frantic fan fundraising effort spearheaded by Steve Stuber raised $300,000 and the team was reactivated by the North American Hockey League in mid-April.
On the same day the new life for the Bears was announced, the team also announced the firing of head coach Jeff Worlton, who had gone 14-66-6 in a season and a half with the club. Worlton took over an organization that won just seven times in the 69 games prior to his arrival.
But Petrich said the effort to save the Bears should stand as a turning point.
“I see it as the greatest asset our organization has,” he said. “I don’t know anywhere in junior hockey where that has ever happened. It provides a special opportunity moving forward.”
Petrich played hockey through high school in Elk River, Minnesota, but then had to give up being a goalie due to injury. But he did not give up the game, attending the University of Minnesota-Duluth and coaching junior, high school and youth hockey in the area.
He spent a season in Alaska as an assistant in 2011-12 with the Alaska Avalanche of Palmer before the team moved to Johnstown, Pennsylvania. But it was during that season that Petrich cemented his relationship with head coach Corey Millen.
“Probably the guy who has had the largest impact on me is him,” Petrich said. “He’s my mentor in life, in hockey, in everything. He’s probably one of my closest friends and will continue to be one of my closest friends.
“He might be more excited for me than I am. I’m still on cloud nine.”
The pair was together with the Minnesota Wilderness from 2013 to 2016, winning the Robertson Cup in just the second season of the franchise’s existence. Petrich said he learned a lot from the quick success.
“It starts with culture, having the right people in the locker room and guys that have the same goals and mind-set,” Petrich said. “That’s the first thing we have to figure out in Kenai.”
Petrich’s resume is relatively light on head-coaching experience, with his head-coaching gigs coming at the AAA and high school level. But Petrich said that doesn’t take into account the way Millen ran his staff.
“Corey is not big into titles, he’s big into doing the job asked of you and I’m going to bring that same mentality to the Brown Bears,” Petrich said. “He let me run practices, lead video sessions and lead game-planning sessions.
“That’s the same mentality I’m going to carry over into this KRBB staff.”
Petrich said Jed McGlasson will return to the team to be an assistant, while Chris Hedlund will remain as Midwest scout. Petrich is in the process of putting the rest of his staff together. Petrich said the network of contacts he has made as a coach, plus hard work, will allow him to recruit quality players to the Kenai Peninsula.
But the coach also said there will not have to be a total rebuild.
“Absolutely, there is already some talent on the roster,” Petrich said. “I started the process of contacting the guys today and that will continue through the weekend.”
The Bears, who have been out of the playoffs for three straight seasons after a run of six straight in the postseason, have never had a coach finish with a record of better than .500. Petrich said he accepts that challenge.
“I think the resources are in place,” Petrich said. “Nate Kiel and Steve have entrusted me to be the next head coach of the program and I’m going to work tirelessly to have as much success as possible.
“It’s not going to happen overnight, with a snap of the fingers, but with blood, sweat and tears, I see no reason why Kenai River can’t be a successful place.”
In visiting the peninsula with the Avalanche and Wilderness, Petrich said the quality of the community stood out. Petrich and his wife, Desi, can’t wait to be a part of that community.
“People in the community are so generous and caring,” Petrich said. “When it’s all said and done, this is a community I want to be a part of and thrive in.
“The biggest thing for the Brown Bears is to be a huge member of the community on the ice and more importantly off the ice.”
Petrich said he does not know when he is moving to the area yet, but he will be in the state for the Bears predraft camp in Anchorage from May 26 to 28.