Kenai River Brown Bears head coach Mike Flanagan monitors action in a game against the Alexandria Blizzard earlier this month. Flanagan and his assistant coach were fired this week.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Kenai River Brown Bears coach and general manager Mike Flanagan was fired by the team Monday.
Flanagan coached the Brown Bears to a league-worst 12-38-8 record in Kenai River's first season in the Junior A North American Hockey League. As an expansion team, the Brown Bears started the season with just four players with previous NAHL experience on their roster.
Jed McGlasson, a 2007 graduate of Kenai Central who had nine goals and 12 assists in 36 games played for Kenai River, said most of the players learned about the firing on Monday.
"As far as I know, all the players reacted the same as me they were kind of stunned," McGlasson said. "He was a great coach and he had a great system. He played the lineup pretty well. Everything was good."
Nate Kiel, who had been serving as a Pacific scout for the Brown Bears, is taking over as the head coach and general manager on an interim basis. He declined to discuss specific reasons for the dismissal.
"All I know is that the ownership group is moving in a new direction and trying to achieve goals on and off the ice of building a championship team on the Kenai Peninsula," Kiel said.
Kiel also said that ownership of the Brown Bears is in transition. The current owner is Barry Schoenly. Kiel said Schoenly, a cancer survivor, was not available for comment due to health issues.
"A board of directors is forming a nonprofit organization to promote the Brown Bears and the development of youth in many respects," Kiel said. "The Brown Bears did an outstanding job of volunteering in schools, the (Kenai Peninsula) Food Bank and many public service organizations this season."
Kiel said a more detailed announcement about the ownership change will be made at a later date. Kiel also said the organization is in transition in regard to Todd Brost, the director of hockey operations. Kiel said Brost has been serving more on the level of a consultant, but that Brost is still the director of hockey operations until it is announced otherwise.
Flanagan said on Thursday he could not comment on his dismissal, but that he might be able to comment at a later date.
Lou Fritz, the Brown Bears assistant coach, also was let go, although it was technically by Flanagan Sports Consulting and not the Brown Bears. Fritz said Flanagan Sports Consulting was given a lump sum by the Brown Bears, and Fritz was actually paid by Flanagan Sports Consulting.
"It is unfortunate for the coaches who were released, but it is a business and the owner did feel like a change needed to be made," Kiel said. "In terms of Junior A hockey, anywhere in North America it's not uncommon for a change to be made. ... My job working with the Brown Bears is to do whatever I can to move the organization in a positive direction and solidify the new coaching staff.
"Mr. Schoenly feels more confident than ever that the Brown Bears are here for a long run."
Fritz said he would leave it to Flanagan to discuss the reasons for the firing.
"I know a lot of players are upset because of the relationships Mike and I developed with them," Fritz said. "Mike and I are upset because of the relationships we've developed with the players."
Fritz said he would continue to support those players and wishes those players the best.
"I think we finished the year the last couple weekends pretty strong," Fritz said. "We beat everyone in our division at least once. As the year moved on, we saw where we were going and tried to get younger, and gain experience and knowledge for next year. The guys started to come together.
"As an expansion team, the wins weren't there, but we were very competitive in a lot of games. ... It was a building process for next year. Unfortunately, we won't be here for that. ... The development is going in the right direction."
If shootout and overtime losses are included, 14 of the Brown Bears' defeats were by one goal or less. The Brown Bears ended their season on Saturday by defeating the Fairbanks Ice Dogs in a shootout for the Bears' first win against the Ice Dogs in 12 tries.
"I didn't have any idea we were getting let go, even at the end of the season," Fritz said. "I just heard we were doing a great job coaching. I don't think it was a hockey aspect. I think it was another aspect related to the coaching staff and the ownership."
That comment was echoed by McGlasson and Brown Bears forward Dan Christianson, a 2005 graduate of Kenai Central. Both said they had heard the biggest reason for the firing was a lack of communication between ownership and the coaching staff.
"I was quite shocked," said Christianson, who is now too old for Junior A hockey and plans on going to Division III Pittsburgh State College and receiving some kind of scholarship money. "Flags and Fritz did a good job of coaching. Of course, in the first year you're going to have some bumps. I thought they'd get more of a chance than one year at the helm of the program."
Christianson, who had five goals and seven assists this season, said the Brown Bears risk losing the progress they made this year by losing some of the younger players eligible to play next season.
"They said if Flags and Fritz don't come back, they don't know if they're coming back," Christianson said. "Our better younger players are contacting other coaches and trying to find other places to play.
"They could be starting all over again without that building year."
McGlasson, who can return next season, said he will wait and meet the new coach before making his decision.
"Before this had happened I was about 95 percent sure that I was coming back," McGlasson said. "I wasn't going anywhere unless something unreal came up.
"Now, I don't know. It's 50-50. It all depends on the coach."
Christianson and McGlasson also said changing coaches after one season does not look good for the image of the franchise. McGlasson said he knows of somebody that was going to be a founder and donate money to the team, but that person now will not donate because the team is not stable.
Two Junior B teams have folded in Soldotna the Peninsula Hellfighters in 1998 and the Peninsula Chinooks in 2000.
"I think people will kind of perceive it as an unstable organization, but I don't really think it is (an unstable organization)," Christianson said. "We took some huge steps this year. Flags and Fritz did and the whole organization did. I only see it getting better from here."
Kiel said he has already started making contact with players and those who have signed tenders with the Brown Bears for next season.
"I'll be giving all of them personal phone calls to assure them the organization is going in a positive direction, they are very much valued in our system and I look forward to introducing them to a new coach," he said.
Kiel, who plans on staying on as the coach of Kenai Central, said the Brown Bears have already been contacted by interested coaches. He expects a lot more interest for the job. He said there should be news in the next 30 days about the new coaching staff and about more players joining the Brown Bears.
Kiel said one positive development is the conditional approval of a new NAHL team in Wenatchee, Wash., that should lead to a better schedule for the Brown Bears. This season the team was on the road from Sept. 19 to Oct. 6. Fans also didn't have the chance to see a home game from Dec. 1 to Feb. 15. Kiel said such gaps between home games will not exist next season.
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