Both the Kenai Central and Soldotna hockey teams have new coaches this season, but experience on the bench shouldn't be a problem.
Coaching for the Stars will be Aaron Swanson. Swanson coached at SoHi from the 2003-04 season to the 2006-07 season before stepping aside last season.
Coaching for the Kardinals will be Pete Iverson. Iverson said he was the head coach at Skyview for about six years until after the 2005-06 season, when the Panthers program ceased to exist.
Swanson is glad to be leading the Stars again.
"I really didn't want to leave last year," Swanson said. "I took a new job a year and a half ago, and in all fairness to the high school hockey program, I didn't want to commit to hockey until I settled into my new job.
"Things went like I was expecting at the new job and now I'm able to come back."
That allows Swanson to try and finish the undertaking he started in 2003, when he set out to rebuild the Soldotna program into a North Star Conference champion.
The Stars last won a conference tournament title in 1998. They finished second in 1999, 2000, 2002, 2003 and 2008.
"We're really focused this year on trying to make the next step and bringing the region crown back to Soldotna, where it should be," Swanson said.
Iverson also would like to get the Kardinals program back to the level where it can compete for conference crowns. Kenai last won the league in 2007, and also took titles in 2003, 2004 and 2005.
When his son, Kenai junior Gradey, started playing hockey, Iverson went back to the rink. Then last year, coach Nate Kiel convinced Iverson to help out. When Kiel left to become general manager of the Kenai River Brown Bears, Iverson became head coach.
"I'm excited to be coaching at Kenai," Iverson said.
As last weekend's Peninsula Ice Challenge showed, the Kardinals are behind the Stars when it comes to chasing a conference crown.
While Soldotna beat Chugiak and lost competitively to North Pole, Kenai was blown out by Soldotna, North Pole and Chugiak.
Iverson said the Stars and Palmer are being talked about as the two conference favorites. Wasilla beat Soldotna for its third conference title in four years last year, but the Warriors lost a whole bunch of seniors.
SoHi finished 8-2 in NSC regular-season play and if every player is healthy and eligible, every skater that touches the ice this season was on the team last season.
Palmer was 7-3 in the league last year and also returns a ton of talent. The Moose and Stars split in the regular season before Soldotna topped Palmer in the conference tourney.
In the Greatland Hockey Conference, Nikiski coach Irv Smith has his eye on a trip to state. Last season, the Bulldogs took a step in that direction by hosting the first playoff game in school history.
Nikiski went 6-9-1 in the conference and hosted Delta in the playoff game, but lost 6-3 to come up short of state. The Bulldogs lost a few seniors off that team, but things were worse across the conference.
"I think we'll be pretty good this year because we have seniors and a lot of teams in the league lost seniors," Smith said.
The following is a closer look at the Kenai Peninsula's four hockey teams:
Swanson, Iverson return to bench for hockey seasonHomer coach Buck Laukitis said his program is still in the building mode. The Mariners finished 0-10 in the league last season and have just 20 players in the program this season.
"By most accounts, we'd be a JV team, except for three or four impact players," Laukitis said. "That's kind of the reality of the situation.
"I'm really concentrating on coaching fundamentals and skill development, and the kids are responding really well."
Laukitis said Homer's youth hockey program has a lot of talent in the pipeline, but that talent is not in high school yet.
One of Homer's top players will be senior Brady Quinn, who earned second-team all-conference honors last year. Senior center David Buckley and sophomore defenseman Russ Merritt also will play important minutes.
A sign of the Homer program's promise is Homer freshman Kyle Wisner, who had a nice debut. Laukitis also is looking forward to senior defenseman Derek Martushev joining the team.
Former coaches back
Not only did the Kardinals score just one goal in their three losses last weekend, but they also were outshot severely in each contest.
"There's two things," Iverson said. "We've got to keep them from shooting so much and we've got to shoot a lot more. Normally, whoever shoots the most wins the game."
Iverson said his team has to learn to not be so shy in pulling the trigger. On defense, Kenai can't give up so many quality shots.
"What we lack in skills, we're going to have to make up for in heart," Iverson said.
Iverson said the squad has two strong defenders in senior Cameron Borchgrevink and junior Dominick Eubank, plus senior defender Sean Dougherty is evolving into a team leader. The coach also loves the work ethic of junior forward Dylan Hendricks and senior forward Bobby Myles.
In net, Iverson said he knows he can rely on seniors Matt Barrett and Alex Koch.
Other players with promise are freshmen Zack Zulkanycz and Connor Hamman and sophomore Avery Palchikoff.
Just like last year, Nikiski's biggest problem will be numbers. The Bulldogs had just five skaters and a goalie for their first two games of the season and six skaters and a goalie for the third game.
"We're going to battle fatigue," Smith said. "Our key thing in practice is conditioning. We have to be in better shape than the other team."
Smith said the strengths of his team will be aggressiveness and the ability to dig the puck out of the corner.
Seniors for the Bulldogs are goalie Tyler Bethune, defenseman Adam Parrish, forward Jennifer Nichols, center Zach Alkire, forward Matt Thompson and utility player Beau Calderwood. The Bulldogs also have junior defenseman Jordan Harrison and sophomore swing player Josh Peterson.
"I give a lot of credit to these boys and girls for the effort they put out on the ice," Smith said. "It's not always easy being the coach of a small team, but these guys are really great kids with some really good skills."
Swanson said he set the tone for the season with a meeting in spring in which goals were set to qualify for state and win the conference.
Goalies for the Stars will be senior Stephen Kendrick and sophomores Dawson Pearson and William Granger. The goalies have each been playing a period until one of them wins the job.
The defensemen will be seniors Kevin Garske, Tyler Best and Jordan Evanoff, junior Jenna Redford and sophomores Branden Fischer and Nick Pokryfki.
The top line will be senior Daniel Markstrom and sophomores Brad Duwe and Sean Endsley. On the second line will be sophomores Matt Silver, Zach Waters and Eric Johnson. The third line will be juniors Michael Griffin and Josh Harvey, and senior Alex Stone.
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