If there's one major difference this season from years past for the Kenai River Brown Bears, it's defense.
That was one of the major themes as seven Brown Bears returning from last year sat down to discuss this year's team, and life in general, in the North American Hockey League.
"We have solid defensemen this year that fit into the system really well," said Jake Musselman, who's been a Brown Bear all three years the team has existed. "There's a lot more structure in the team."
"We have a more solid core of team defense this year," said second-year defenseman Kegan Kiel.
"It's the team committing to defense, not just defensemen," added Ryan Townsend, who joined the team a year and a half ago.
This season's squad also has more experience than previous teams.
"We're more mature this year," said team captain Jed McGlasson.
Recruiting, too, has improved, he said. "We're getting more players, better players I think," said McGlasson, another three-year veteran of the team.
One of those players includes Dajon Mingo. The first-year Brownie leads his team with 19 points and is currently in sixth place among leading scorers in the North American Hockey League after tonight's game.
McGlasson, Musselman and Townsend all agree that this year's team is the most competitive in Kenai River's history. The Brown Bears (5-14-1) sit in the last place of the West Division. But five of their losses came in one-goal games.
With a more competitive team, the crowd is louder this season compared to game one last year, said two-year Brown Bears veteran Joe Spencer.
"It's getting to a better atmosphere to play in," he said. "It's a whole lot more fun when the crowd gets into it."
"Everybody involved with the team is all about us," Townsend said. "You don't know anybody, but they totally support you," he said about the community.
"It seems like they'd do anything to help us out," Musselman added. "There's nowhere else I'd rather go."
Taking it to the next level
Most, if not all, of the team chose to play Junior A hockey to move onto the college level.
"Everything that we do is built around getting to the next level," McGlasson said.
But Alaska can be a tough place to attract the attention of collegiate scouts.
"It's hard to get looked at playing in Alaska," McGlasson said.
When scouts are in the stands, players have to try and focus on the game -- something much easier said than done.
"You're kind of ready for it every game," Spencer said about being scouted.
"It's definitely in the back of your mind, though," added Jimmy Hamby, second-year goaltender from Ann Arbor, Mich.
"I try to personally block it out and play the game to play the game," Townsend said. "If you worry about that stuff, it takes your focus elsewhere."
Much of the responsibility of getting players to NCAA Division I and Division III schools lies with the coaching staff. Most coaches have played college and even professional hockey, and have networked with others in the sport, McGlasson said. The players rely on their coaches to contact schools and get scouts to watch their team play, he added.
"Trust the coach to get you to the next level," Spencer said.
"When you have a big game, you hope somebody is there," McGlasson added.
But just making a Junior A team doesn't mean players will automatically earn a college scholarship. Developing their skills is essential while playing Juniors, said Brown Bears interim head coach Oliver David.
"From Mites to Midgets, the big buzzword is 'development,'" David said. "In Junior hockey, it somehow gets a little misconstrued that the idea is, 'How can you help me move on?' But it still remains a very crucial time to pay attention to your own development."
And that development not only depends on the coaches, but also on the players' work ethic.
"The kids that move on, are here to move on," McGlasson said. Those that don't, get caught up in the moment and skip out on workouts, school and get sidetracked, he said.
"Our whole day is teaching us what the next level is going to be like," Spencer said. Some teammates have school, others have jobs and those that don't participate in community service.
"They try to keep our days as busy as possible," Spencer said.
"You're treated like a pro player," Townsend said. "All you have to worry about is being on the ice every day. There's no distractions. It's just about hockey."
A whole new speed
In Junior hockey, the game is much faster than at lower levels.
"Once you play a couple games and adjust, you can start making an impact," McGlasson said.
"It goes from skating three days a week to five or six days a week," Spencer said. "Your speed and decision-making gets better."
Hamby agreed, saying the biggest difference is playing more games on a more consistent basis than lower-level leagues.
Every player is bigger and faster, Kiel said. The more skilled players create less space on the ice, he said.
Not only do players improve in Junior A hockey, but coaches do, too, Musselman said.
"It's definitely the most competitive and skilled hockey I've ever played," Townsend added.
Playing at a higher level, although it takes some time to adjust, breeds a better hockey player.
"I feel like I can control the puck more," said Brad Fusaro, who's in his second season with Kenai River. "I make better and smarter decisions."
"My first year, I got a lot better," McGlasson said. "You might not notice it yourself, but if you go (home) and go to a high school game, you'll be surprised."
"I noticed it during summer league," Spencer said. "Everything just got a lot better for me. I was just a step above everybody else at home."
During the season, it's difficult to see the improvement in yourself, Musselman said.
"You don't realize it, but you're just getting better," Townsend added.
Though improvement is typically indicated on the scoreboard, there's more to success than tallying wins and points, David said.
"If you're playing here and progressively getting better and having fun and maturing, then it's success," he said. "By that definition, it's been a successful venture for these players."
Mike Nesper can be reached at email@example.com.
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