In a third attempt at bringing junior hockey to the Kenai Peninsula, the 18-team North American Hockey League announced on Tuesday the formation of the Kenai River Brown Bears, who will call the Soldotna Sports Center home.
While local fans have already seen the demise of two Junior B hockey organizations, from the tumultuous 4-35 campaign of the Peninsula Hellfighters in 1997-98 to the debt-curtailed stint of the Peninsula Chinooks (1998-2000), backers of the Brown Bears believe a Junior A team will be different. The team will begin play in the fall.
One of those supporters, Soldotna Parks and Recreation Director Andrew Carmichael, said the exceptional level of talent will be instrumental in the team’s success.
“It’s a different level of hockey. It’s a raised level of hockey,” he explained. “To be honest, this level of hockey is less goony, I guess. It’s more fluid and it’s a higher level of talent.
“There’s a lot of people that love hockey in the area,” Carmichael added. “This is a level that these kids are grooming to play (the University of Alaska Anchorage) or another Division I entity, not just to hang on.”
Carmichael hasn’t forgotten the past. He’s just looking toward the future.
“The failures of before will still be there. You’re always going to have that to overcome,” he said. “But I think once they see what it is they have a strong marketing plan and a good community involvement plan the community will get to know the players as well as the organization.”
Land developer Barry Schoenly, founder and president of the Brown Bears, can be thanked for that.
Amidst the construction of an arena in Williamsport, Pa., in August for an eventual minor-league hockey team, the 63-year old Schoenly was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He then realized Alaska was most important to him and transferred that Pennsylvania venture to his nephew, Dr. Brian Schoenly.
“Alaska’s giving me 90 percent of my pleasure, so I’m going to stick with it,” he said. “One week after I found out I had cancer, I purchased the franchise out of Bozeman, Montana, with the intentions of bringing it to Soldotna.”
A minority owner of the Alaska Avalanche and resident of Palmer, where he owns Alaska Wilderness Tours, Schoenly recently purchased a home in Soldotna, where he said he plans on spending a lot of time.
“Our level is so competitive that it keeps people’s interest and professionals are so interested in it that last year the No. 1 pick from the NHL came out of our league,” Schoenly explained.
Clearly, he, too, is optimistic for the prosperity of the team.
Hiring Todd Brost, a member of Canada’s silver medal-winning team from the 1992 Olympic Games, as the director of hockey operations was the first step toward securing a general manager and a coach for the organization.
“The difference starts right with the director of hockey operations, Todd Brost,” he said. “His hockey knowledge, business knowledge and integrity in the game are unquestioned.
“We started with the best and that’s going to be the key.”
With 29 home games slated for the upcoming season, the Brown Bears will generate anywhere from $40,000 to $70,000 in ice sales for the Sports Center, according to Carmichael.
But the primary focus, he said, is facilitating the youth.
“There may be kids here locally that now don’t have to leave to play junior hockey. They can stay a part of the community they grew up in,” Carmichael said. “Not all the kids want to leave. Some of them like it here for good reason.”
That’s a major part of Schoenly’s premise, as well.
“I’m looking forward to having a minimum of at least six Alaska players on the team,” he said. “We’re talking to, I think, at least a half-dozen right now from the area, still in high school.
“... My motivation is to see these kids go to college, get scholarships and/or to introduce them to pro hockey contracts,” Schoenly added. “We can put those kids right into the college level and the pros.”
He also recognizes how valuable community involvement can be to the success and longevity of any franchise.
“If a church has a spaghetti dinner and needs servers or whatever, we’ll be out there,” Schoenly said proudly.
Another benefit of a third Alaskan NAHL team, along with the Avalanche and the Fairbanks Ice Dogs, is the cost of flying in visiting teams will be reduced, Carmichael said.
In the final stages of cancer treatment, Schoenly said he should receive a clean bill of health and will then become a cancer survivor.
In doing so, his goal is to eventually sell the team to a group of local investors.
“Having Hodgkin’s, I don’t have a forever ticket. I feel it’s real important to get people from Soldotna to eventually get together and buy it out,” he said. “When I’m 68 to 70, I’d like to see that happen.”
Had Schoenly not been stricken with Hodgkin’s, junior hockey may not have received another chance on the peninsula.
“I probably would have continued to get a team in Williamsport by myself and instead I passed that on to my nephew,” he explained. “It made me realize where I wanted to spend the rest of my life and how I wanted to dedicate my life.
“Junior A hockey is just the most exciting level of hockey,” Schoenly added. “In the last part of my life, I want to stay in that exciting level.”
Matthew Carroll can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Peninsula Clarion ©2013. All Rights Reserved.