No one on this resurgent Kenai River Brown Bears squad is more motivated for the playoffs than Brett Lubanski.
The second-year forward has come too far.
"It's been everything to me. After last year, I really wanted to be a part of turning this organization around. I wanted to be a big part of it," Lubanski said from the grandstands inside an empty Soldotna Sports Center on Thursday morning. "I knew the city would go nuts if we started to do well. It's been incredible. It's allowed me to achieve personal success, and the team success has been so evident."
The Bears open the 2011 North American Hockey League playoffs at 7:30 p.m. Friday against the Fairbanks Ice Dogs at the Big Dipper Ice Arena in Fairbanks. They have never won a playoff game.
Kenai River is enjoying its most successful season in club history -- more than doubling last year's win total of 12 -- and much of the credit goes to Lubanski. He leads Kenai River in assists and boasts one of the top stat lines in the league.
Players and coaches agree his effect on the team is equally impressive off the ice.
Lubanski, 19, is one of just eight holdovers from the 2009-10 squad, which finished last in the NAHL West Division.
Now, he is the team captain. The heart and soul. A leader.
"He has control of the locker room. He is not easily angered. He is an extreme competitor, but is able to keep control of himself and the team," coach Oliver David said. "Right away I asked guys all throughout training camp, 'Who do you see as our leader?' -- because you want to make sure you have a guy who the team respects -- and unanimously it was Lubanski."
BECOMING A BROWN BEAR
Growing up in Farmington Hill, Mich., an affluent suburb of Detroit, it was expected Lubanski would play hockey.
His father competed, as did his uncles, and Lubanski was in skates by the age 3.
It was through the Honeybaked Midget AAA U-18 program in Michigan that Lubanski came into contact with the Brown Bears, who began recruiting him when Marty Quarters was Kenai River's coach.
After signing a tender, Lubanski joined the squad for the 2009-10 season at the age of 18.
Never mind the fact the Bears were a last-place team. Lubanski, the boy from the Detroit suburbs, was headed to Alaska.
"They thought I was kidding. Some people thought I was joking," he said. "Some people didn't even know where Alaska was. They were really surprised, but they knew it was a great opportunity."
For the past two seasons, the Michigan native has lived with Gwen and Clyde Johnson. Big supporters of the club, Lubanski said they made his transition to Alaska smooth.
"They've been everything to me," he said.
David took the helm shortly into the 2009-10 campaign, and a relationship between the first-year player and first-year coach soon blossomed.
Although Lubanski admits the transition between coaches wasn't easy, he found a role on the team under David.
That didn't translate to victories -- the Bears won just six games at home last season -- but Lubanski felt comfortable with the unit.
"For me, I think it's the perfect place to develop as a hockey player because there really aren't that many distractions," he said. "I've really just focused on hockey. Literally, every day that's all I think about."
A CAPTAIN IS CROWNED
Even from the beginning, David knew he had a special player in Lubanski.
From his work ethic to his attitude to his competitive nature to his natural hockey ability, David saw in Lubanski what he wished all players had.
For those reasons, he considered him an assistant captain during last season's transition despite the fact Lubanski was a rookie.
The players responded to the rookie, and when it came time to name a captain for 2010-11, the decision was easy.
"All those cards fell right into place because of the way he naturally is. His character is outstanding and unselfish. It happened," David said. "It was almost a self-fulfilling prophecy for him. We prepared him for it and he stepped right in and obviously showed that it was a very good decision."
In addition to posting impressive numbers on the ice, the captain has earned the trust and respect of his teammates in the locker room.
Brad Duwe, who plays on the first line with Lubanski and also was last year's team, called him smart on and away from the ice.
"He's always focused," Duwe said. "All he thinks about is the game, nothing else. When he's out there, he's out there to play and to win. Losing doesn't come across his mind. He's always positive about it and that leads to good play."
It's humbling, Lubanski said, to play the role of captain.
But with the position also comes responsibility, something of which Lubanski is aware.
In the community and on the ice, he is a face to the franchise of sorts.
"It's very important for me to do everything right at all times. I really embrace the fact that my teammates look up to me as their so-called leader," Lubanski said. "Oliver considers me his representation of what he wants this team to stand for."
ON THE FRONT LINE
Ask Lubanski about his stats, and the conversation quickly strays to teammates.
Lubanski, Duwe and forward Doug Beck have played together all season on Kenai River's first line. The trio is among the best in the league in points among lines, combining for 175.
All three were Bears last season, too, but it wasn't until this year that they saw consistent playing time together.
"It's something special. It's something I'll always be thankful for, that I've been able to play with them," Lubanski said. "I owe everything to them. I'm sure they would say they owe everything to me as well."
Duwe and Beck have combined for 44 goals, and Lubanski understands his assists total, which ranks third in the league, wouldn't be nearly as high if it weren't for those around him.
David said it's Lubanski's work ethic that sets him apart, coupled with the fact he creates space for himself on the ice and has a firm understanding of how to execute on the power play.
The captain had 25 assists last year, about half his total of 2010-11. Lubanski is listed at 5-foot-11, 185 pounds -- smaller than many opponents.
"We've been about an average hockey club, showing signs of real elite potential at times, so for him to be running our team and playing in this West Division and putting up points every night as an undersized player, it's remarkable," David said. "To have all those things come together on a team working its way up the ladder, not sitting at the top looking down, is pretty cool for him."
It's been a record-breaking season for the Bears, who are enjoying their winningest campaign in club history.
Never before 2010-11 had Kenai River finished above .500 or anywhere but last place. Now the Bears are poised to earn their first postseason win.
The turnaround is a point of pride for Lubanski and his teammates.
"I definitely notice," Lubanski said of the response from the community. "Little things -- people saying, 'Hey you guys are Brown Bears? You're having a hell of a season.'"
On the ice, the Bears were once a laughingstock. Now Lubanski feels the team has earned respect around the league.
That's what happens when a club plays .500 hockey or better against four of its five divisional foes and earns a spot in the playoffs after spending three seasons at the bottom of the standings.
"Last year it was, 'Oh, you play for Kenai. You're a joke,'" Lubanski said. "Now we're beating all these teams with the same guys who were on those teams last year. It's definitely personally gratifying and I'm sure the other guys would say the same thing. It's a big deal, definitely."
The success of the team also is paving the way for Lubanski to play at the next level.
He is considered a Division-I caliber player, though he has yet to sign with a school. David said it's only a matter of time.
It could happen in the next couple months, or may not happen until next season.
"They like to recruit guys from better teams, winning teams," Lubanski said. "Coach tells us all the time how colleges are calling him and saying, 'You guys are really turning it around. Everyone knows about your program this year.'"
Lubanski has one more year of eligibility in the NAHL, which enforces an age limit of 20.
And no matter where he lands in college, David already is looking toward the 2011-12 season.
"We want him back next year," the coach said.
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