Like their namesake, the Kenai River Brown Bears are stirring with activity.
The Brown Bears are the new North American Hockey League Junior A team which will be based at the Soldotna Sports Center. The 18-team NAHL will be in its 31st season in 2006-07 and regularly sends players to NCAA Division I and III programs. As of May 23, over 100 players from the league had committed to a college for next season or 2008-09.
The Brown Bears are having an evaluation camp at the ConocoPhillips City of Kenai Multipurpose Facility. The camp started on Friday and will run through today, with an all-star game from 1:15 to 3:15 p.m. today that is open to the public.
Friday, the Brown Bears also announced that their coach will be Mike Flanagan. Flanagan was the assistant coach for the St. Louis Bandits, who recently won the NAHL’s Robertson Cup in Fairbanks.
Todd Brost, the director of hockey operations, was at the Multipurpose Facility on Friday for the evaluation camp and to announce the hiring of Flanagan. Brost also discussed the nine tenders, five draft picks and two veteran players the Brown Bears have obtained via a trade. A tender is a mutual agreement between a player and a club that if a player plays in the NAHL, it will be for that club.
Brost, who will run the team while living in New York state, said the Brown Bears have had a lot to do since team president Barry Schoenly announced in late February that he was bringing the club to the Kenai Peninsula.
“I’m really excited,” said Brost, a former Canadian Olympic hockey silver medalist with Team Canada in 1992. “We’ve gotten a lot done in a short amount of time.
“Barry’s attitude is contagious. It’s really exciting the feedback we’ve gotten from the community.”
Area hockey fans have already seen the demise of two Junior B organizations. Brost said Schoenly has stressed there is only one chance to make a first impression.
“Everything he is involved in, he does professionally,” Brost said of Schoenly. “This is going to be a professionally run team. We want to be a part of this community for a long time. We feel a one-way relationship is a short-term relationship.”
Flanagan, interviewed on the phone Friday, also plans on a long-term relationship with the community. He said the challenge of building a new program attracted him to the Brown Bears. He’s also an outdoors enthusiast who has always wanted to go to Alaska. As he talked on the phone, he said he was on the Internet marveling at the hunting and fishing opportunities available on the peninsula.
“When I get there, I’m not leaving,” said Flanagan, who has a wife and two kids. “I’m not going up there and leaving my family behind. I’m bringing my family and they’re all excited. I’m going to live there and commit to the program.”
Flanagan, chosen from a total of 26 applicants, also said he is excited about building the Brown Bears with Schoenly and Brost. Flanagan is not sure when he is moving up here, but said it will probably be late in the summer.
“I thought Barry has a very strong passion for the game,” Flanagan said. “Having Todd Brost on board obviously he is a very qualified hockey person. I felt the major components of a successful franchise were in place already.”
Brost met Schoenly when Brost was the head coach and director of player procurement with the Elmira (New York) Jackals. The Jackals played their first seven seasons in the professional United Hockey League and will be moving to the ECHL, the same league as the Alaska Aces, next season. In five seasons with the Jackals, Brost had four playoff appearances and two trips to the Colonial Cup finals.
Brost said the Brown Bears started with eight tenders and two draft picks. Brost said the league gave the Brown Bears five more tenders in order to help the Brown Bears become competitive quicker. One tender was traded for two veterans. The Brown Bears also traded to obtain a total of five draft picks in the first two rounds. Out of six players the Brown Bears targeted in the draft, the club was able to draft five.
Brost said he received input on the draft from Midwest scout Chris Blaisuis, Flanagan and Pacific scout Nate Kiel, also the Kenai Central High School coach.
The 50-some players assembled at the Multipurpose Facility are fighting to join the tenders and draft picks at the team’s final camp, which should be held sometime in August. The Brown Bears also will have an evaluation camp, run by Flanagan, in Minnesota on June 8, 9 and 10.
The current camp features about 30 players from Alaska, but also players from as far away as England and Sweden. Viktor Tuurala paid his own way from Sweden to attend the camp. The goalie said he has played in the top Junior league in Sweden and the third-best men’s league.
“This is a great opportunity to be a part of something new to spread my wings a little bit and play some good hockey, too,” Tuurala said.
One of the local players at the camp is Kegan Kiel. Kiel would have been a junior this year at Kenai Central, but instead he lived in Kansas City, Mo., and played with the Russell Stover Tier I Midget Minor team.
“It’s not every day a Junior A team comes to your hometown,” Kiel said. “It’d be a dream to come home and play for a Junior A team.”
Kiel said the only time he made it home this school year was for Christmas. Although the Brown Bears will have long road trips, he said being on the team would allow him to spend more time with friends and family.
Both Kiel and his father, Nate, think the team will be well-received by the community.
“The people in this community are going to be treated to a really high level of hockey,” Nate Kiel said. “The NAHL sends players to college hockey every year. The community will get to watch future Division I and III players.”
Kiel said the team, which has an age limit of being 20 on or before Dec. 31, should mesh well with the high school programs in the area.
“I’ve thought about that a lot since I’m a high school coach,” Kiel said. “At the high school, I promote student-athletes. What I keep coming back to is the Brown Bears will be doing the same thing.
“One way these programs are judged is by how many players they send to college. You want players that are getting A’s and B’s, not C’s and D’s.”
Kiel said the Fairbanks Ice Dogs, an NAHL team, sent eight players off this year’s team to Division I hockey.
The mention of the Ice Dogs may conjure up memories of the Peninsula Hellfighters of 1997-98 or the Peninsula Chinooks of 1998-2000 in the minds of area hockey fans. Vince Redford, who was the principal owner of the Chinooks, said he’s thrilled the Brown Bears have come to the peninsula. Redford said it was always the goal of the Chinooks to become Junior A one day.
“With the Chinooks, we had a lot of people involved with big hearts, but not deep pockets,” Redford said. “Mr. Schoenly has the resources to make this work.”
Redford said the Brown Bears face two main challenges. First, the peninsula does not have a large population base. Second, even though having NAHL teams in Fairbanks and the Matanuska-Susitna valleys will lessen travel costs, the Brown Bears will still roll up big travel bills.
Redford said the Brown Bears will have to attract a high percentage of area fans and have to attract fans from outlying areas. Last season, an average of 983 fans saw every NAHL game. He said the team has been able to hire marketing personnel the Chinooks never had, and is encouraged by a slick brochure he received last week offering a reasonable price on season tickets.
By attracting fans and getting the support of businesses, Redford said the Brown Bears have a better shot and handling the high costs it takes to survive. He said Schoenly will be more able to handle the bumps in the road it takes to becoming an established franchise.
“The fan base for the Chinooks was growing,” Redford said. “If I had the money, the Chinooks would still be here today. At least, I’d like to think so.”
A longtime youth hockey coach, Redford also looks forward to what the Brown Bears will do for the Kenai Peninsula Hockey Association.“As a coach, one thing I noticed is that players from here lack top-level talent to emulate,” Redford sad. “This is an exciting opportunity for local kids.”
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