Kenai River Brown Bears general manager and coach Mike Flanagan goes over a play with members of the new North American Hockey League Junior A team during a practice at the Soldotna Sports Center on Thursday afternoon.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
The mood in the locker room sounded upbeat. The players were smiling and laughing. The head coach beaming with confidence.
Nearly seven years of pressure, however, is still rearing its head.
"A lot of people (feel it), especially the local kids said, 'If you don't win here then a lot of fans won't come,'" Kenai River Brown Bears center Brett Englebright said, fully aware of junior hockey's past failures on the Kenai Peninsula. "They even said about the high school football teams that if they don't win they won't come. You win, you're going to get more fans."
That challenging quest begins at 7 p.m. today when the Brown Bears, the newest addition to the North American Hockey League, debut at the Soldotna Sports Center in front of what could be close to 1,000 fans.
"I'm ready to go," said Englebright, a center from Illinois who played the past two seasons for the NAHL's Traverse City (Mich.) North Stars. "I think we'll be pretty good."
Junior A hockey has yet to be tested locally, pumping a feeling of optimism through management after two stints of Junior B hockey came up short.
The Peninsula Hellfighters labored through a 4-35 campaign in 1997-98 and the Peninsula Chinooks (1998-2000) had their stint curtailed by debt.
And now, while he admits that no pressure is seeping down from ownership, coach Mike Flanagan concedes he is overwhelmed with it.
"Nobody's putting pressure on me. If anything, it's myself. I'm putting a lot of pressure on myself. I want to succeed. I want to win and I want to put kids into college. I probably haven't been the most pleasant guy to be hanging around at the house with my wife and kids," Flanagan explained. "Personally, I'm stressing a little bit because I really want this to do well. ... I feel like there is a lot of pressure. I guess it will probably all go away when we get the first 60 minutes out of our system."
It's evident word of those past shortcomings has spread quickly throughout the organization.
Forward Aaron Nell, 17, is already aware of the local history and he arrived from England about three weeks ago.
"There's a little bit (of pressure)," he said. "But this will be better hockey this time. Higher standards and stuff. I think it will work out."
So does Flanagan.
"We're not going to be 57-0, but at same time, we don't want to be 0-57 either. With that being said, we're hoping to fall somewhere in between," he said. "We're hoping to have the type of team that is a hardworking team, the type of team that the community can be proud of and a team that they can call their own. We want to have an identity that's conducive to what the community is, which is a hardworking community."
Helping to ensure that success is the training program members of the team have been participating in for almost three weeks at the Peninsula Athletic Club.
Frequenting the gym whenever they can, players also have been subjected to a 45-minute spinning class and an equally long bozu class, both geared toward increasing endurance and strength.
"It's tough but I think it's real good for a team to do something like that," said 2007 Kenai Central High School graduate Owen Dukowitz. "I think it's probably going to help a lot. Most of the work is in our legs. We're going to get a step on some of the other teams. Some other teams probably aren't working out as much."
One of them being Traverse City, who according to Englebright, allotted each player about 45 minutes with a trainer.
"It wasn't too much," he said. "This is a lot better."
But Flanagan believes more than conditioning goes into a successful season.
And he would know, considering he's fresh off a stint as the assistant coach of the National Champion St. Louis Bandits, who he helped guide to a first-place finish in the NAHL South Division with a 43-14-5 record last year.
It's "jam," he said, that can make the difference.
"You've got to play with jam. If you don't have any jam, you might as well go home," Flanagan said. "It's swagger, moxie, a sense of personal pride.
"Blocking shots, getting your nose dirty, sacrificing your body for the betterment of the team. That's something that you need to develop. Some kids have it and some kids don't," he added. "Teams that win, have it as a team. We're developing it. It doesn't happen overnight.
"Either it happens very quickly and you bond together, rebound from losses, or you don't have it, you get pushed around out there and lose games you should win."
It will soon become clear whether the Brown Bears, indeed, have that much-needed jam or not as they take on their soon-to-be instate rivals tonight in the Alaska Avalanche of Wasilla and then the Fairbanks Ice Dogs on Saturday and Sunday.
"I couldn't asked for a better opening weekend," Flanagan said. "My heart's beating a hundred miles a minute. I can't wait for the drop of the puck. I wish I was 19 years old again. But that's why I love to coach."
Englebright knows first-hand how crucial a fast start can be, as his team missed the playoffs last season by three or four points.
"You look back and every game matters," he said.
Then there's the issue of fans.
It's already built. The question is, will they come?
"It will be good to get a lot of noise and hopefully be able to have a fortress," Nell said of a home-ice advantage. "We've just got to get off to a good start and then the fans will keep on coming."
Matthew Carroll can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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