The high school hockey season kicked off two weekends ago, and if the first games of the season are any indication, it's shaping up to be a dandy.
"Everybody's looking good," said Kenai Central coach Brian Gabriel Sr. "If you can go out there and play in front of 800 or 1,000 people and look pretty good, that's good for hockey in this area."
Indeed, spectators have been packing into the Soldotna Sports Center for games involving Kenai, Soldotna and Skyview, and the teams have not disappointed, playing very competitive and spirited games.
"Kenai and Skyview, they're very improved teams," said Soldotna coach Pat Nolden. "One thing that's going to be neat about this year is, you can come play any of the local teams and expect a one-puck game. That's great for fans in the area -- but it's hard on coaches."
The Stars opened their season with a 3-2 win over Kenai. The Kardinals notched a 5-1 win over Skyview last weekend, and the Panthers opened with a 3-2 overtime win over Monroe last week.
Add the Nikiski Bulldogs, who showed marked improvement from their first to their second game this year against Monroe, and the makings of an exciting season are in place.
On tap for this week is the Peninsula Ice Challenge, a four-team round robin tournament featuring Soldotna, Kenai, Bartlett and North Pole.
"It's a neat way for the community to see some teams from outside the region," Gabriel Sr. said. "Generally, we have an Anchorage school and a Fairbanks school come down. Generally, the level of the teams that come in is pretty good."
Playing teams from outside Region III/4A's North Star Conference also gives the peninsula teams a chance to see how they stack up with the rest of the state.
"We get a litmus test," Nolden said. "While it's nice playing the conference teams, you need to step out and play Anchorage and Fairbanks teams to see where you're sitting."
Tournament play kicks off today with the Stars facing North Pole at 4:45 p.m. and the Kardinals playing Bartlett at 6:45 p.m.
Nolden said the Stars are ready to play after a 12-day layoff since their first game.
"We're doing a nice job at practice," Nolden said. "We're working hard. Hopefully, good things will come of it."
Nolden said the Stars have a nice nucleus of six seniors to build around in defensemen Scott Laurion, Andy Silver and Keith Herring, forwards Derek Martin and Peter Kim and goaltender Egan Gleason.
Nolden said Silver's improvement has been impressive while sophomore Mat Vasilie, freshman Johnny Smith and juniors Jon Verhelst and JJ Sullivan have been able to step into the varsity lineup.
Nolden also pointed to a nice corps of returning players including Daniel Potton, Johnny Mills and Hunter Sirois, while Ben Tikka rounds out a line with Martin and Kim.
"Those are two pretty stout lines," Nolden said.
Nolden expects the North Stars Conference season to continue to be competitive.
"I think we're going to be in a lot of close games," Nolden said. "In the conference, it's pretty tight. At the end of the year, any of the six teams could be in the championship game. We're just trying to be responsible, play as a team, and as the months go by, hopefully we'll contend."
A season ago, the Kardinals had eight freshman taking regular varsity shifts. With those players a year older, Gabriel Sr. is excited by the prospects this year brings.
"It's a real talented group that's going to be the nucleus of the team for the next couple years," Gabriel Sr. said. "In addition, the veterans we have complement that. If you look at our team, we have good forwards, good defensemen and good goaltending. It's just a matter of the kids putting it together."
Seniors Owen Brewer and Adrian Borchgrevink form a talented top line for the Kardinals. Zach Hicks, also a senior, has moved from his forward position to the Kardinals defense.
"It's a pretty nice fit. He's anchoring our defense right now," Gabriel Sr. said.
Gabriel Sr. said Kenai will look to play solid defense with Hicks, Jimmy Gabriel and Cory Janson holding down the blue line.
"That'll be a key to our success -- keeping a tight defense," Gabriel Sr. said.
Gabriel Sr. said Kenai's hopes were bolstered with the arrival of several transfer students, particularly at the goaltending position.
"Before the first practice, just looking at what we had coming in, and who are veterans were, I was real excited," Gabriel Sr. said. "(With the transfer students), that kind of rounds things out for us."
Skyview coach Pete Iverson said his Panthers would have liked a better result against the Kardinals last week, but were pleased with their effort nonetheless.
"We came out pretty strong and were doing real well for a period and a half. Kenai took advantage of a breakdown, but we had a pretty good third period," Iverson said. "I think they were pretty happy with the way they played -- they weren't hanging their heads."
Iverson said most of the players on this year's roster are returning from last season, and a quartet of freshmen has been thrown into the varsity lineup.
"The majority of our players are 10th and 11th graders, and it's a good mix," Iverson said.
Iverson said Joel Christianson has been rock-solid and will be paired with Ginny Berg, a "real smart hockey player," on defense.
"We count on our defense (being solid), and that lets our offense take a few more risks," Iverson said.
Iverson said Jeremy Mercier has started strong, and that Brandon Sachwitz's improvement from last season has been amazing.
"He's really eager to the best he can do for the team and for the game," Iverson said.
Iverson expects his squad to be competitive in every game, something that will only add to the excitement of peninsula hockey.
The Nikiski Bulldogs also expect to be competitive in every game of their Greatland Conference schedule under new head coach Al Anderson.
"This is a large team. We had 25 kids out for hockey," Anderson said. "There was a lot of interest from the freshmen in coming out."
The Bulldogs' roster boasts six seniors, 11 juniors, three sophomores and five freshmen to open the season.
"We have quite a few returning players," Anderson said. "We have quite a bit of depth on defense, and players with experience playing from last year."
The only thing the Bulldogs are waiting on is the weather. Warm temperatures have prevented the ice from being put in at Jason Peterson Memorial Rink in Nikiski, and the Bulldogs played their first two games at the Kenai Multipurpose Facility, which has a refrigerated sheet.
"I'm just looking forward to it getting cold, so we can have our own Nikiski ice," Anderson said.
The Bulldogs are led by seniors Josh Pepper, Josh Winters, Brad Harrison, Dustin Abel, Jacob Zundel and Rueben Floyd.
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