Forget last year. The Kenai River Brown Bears certainly are.
In a drastic change from the 2009-10 North American Hockey League campaign, the Brown Bears enter this season with more youth and a complete, 23-man roster.
"The big difference is we're having a training camp with all the guys that we chose that want to be here," second-year Brown Bears head coach Oliver David said. "Out of the gate we are in much better shape than last year because we're all here together."
Kenai River begins its season with a two-game series against West Division rival Alaska Avalanche of Palmer -- the team relocated from its previous home in Wasilla. Game 1 will be played Friday at 7:30 p.m. at the Palmer Ice Arena. Though called a home game on the schedule, Game 2 will be played at the Subway Sports Center in Anchorage at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday.
David is the first coach in the franchise's four-year existence to return for a second season. He took over as head coach last year after Marty Quarters was fired after 12 games.
Last season Kenai River did not have a two-week training camp, skating twice a day, with its full team like this year, David said. Nor did the Brown Bears wait for players cut from other teams prior to the season to join their team. David attributed Kenai River's 2-9-1 start to last season to not having a preseason camp with a finalized team.
The Brown Bears finished a league-worst 12-40-6 in the regular season before being swept by the Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild in the first round of the playoffs. The Bismarck (N.D.) Bobcats won the 2010 Roberston Cup, defeating Fairbanks in the finals 3-0.
Another major difference from the 2009-10 Brown Bears is age. Last season 12 players on Kenai River's initial roster were 20 years old. Just four 20-year-olds are on this year's team. Those include Kegan Kiel, Josh Royston, Doug Beck and Chris Rial, all returners.
Youth is a positive for the team, second-year Brown Bear Brett Lubanski said.
"We're getting a fresh start," he said. "We're gonna be a fast, offensive team that can make plays."
David said he recruited a team that could be developed over the next two years. With nearly everyone eligible to return next season, David said he's hoping to instill good habits this year and build on that.
"If this group gets the ball rolling, the Brown Bears will have the most success in the history of the club over the next two years," he said.
But David isn't looking past this season. His goal is to make the playoffs. With the addition of the Fresno (Calf.) Monsters and Dawson Creek (British Columbia) Rage to the West, each team in the division won't receive automatic postseason berths like the previous two seasons.
"It will make us work a lot harder to make the playoffs," second-year returner Brad Duwe said.
Though arguably the toughest NAHL division will be even more competitive, making the playoffs is realistic for Kenai River, David said.
"That is a very attainable goal," he said. "Every game will be more than a handful, but I don't think we bit off more than we can chew."
Lubanski said he's excited to have two more division foes. Last season, 44 of Kenai River's 58 regular-season games were played against Wenatchee, Fairbanks or Alaska.
"It gets old playing those same teams," Lubanski said.
Nine returners are back for David. Along with Duwe, Lubanski and the aforementioned 20-year-olds, Raymond Stenehjem, Jesse Ramsey and Josh Benton will again don a Brown Bears sweater.
Duwe will be a key returner on offense, David said.
"Duwe is our returning scorer," he said. "We obviously expect him to be even more focused and dedicated this year."
Duwe finished second on the team in scoring last year with 34 points in 47 games during the regular season.
"He put up numbers last year," David said. "We are looking for him to do the same this year."
As a senior in high school, Duwe is one of the younger players on the team. Duwe said the team has been learning from each other at each practice.
"It's really just a team effort," he said. "We help each other out. That's what makes a winning team."
Around the nucleus of returners, David said he was able to bring in the type of players he wants. High on his list was recruiting local elite talent. Ten Brown Bears on the roster hail from Alaska.
"This summer we feel we were successful in finding good-character kids," David said. "We wanted to be Alaska's team. We feel we have some pretty talented local Alaskans."
"I think definitely we have a lot more skill," Lubanski said. "Guys are fresh and really excited about coming back."
Jelling will be crucial for success, Lubanski said.
"I really think we need to come together," he said. "Being willing to sacrifice everything for the guy next to you."
The training camp has helped form a team bond, Duwe said.
"We're coming together as a team a lot quicker than last year," he said.
Duwe said the Brown Bears have all the pieces needed for a successful season.
"We pretty much have everything," he said. "We're right there. If we continue to work hard, it will come."
While winning and losing isn't in the team's control, maintaining a high competition level, along with developing mental and physical toughness, is, David said.
David said the team is here to serve the community, both in providing entertainment as well as community service.
"We want a team the community can be proud of and want to support," he said.
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