Both Kenai River Brown Bears coach Oliver David and Alaska Avalanche forward Tyler Schwartz learned that there is more than meets the eye to Brown Bears forward Brad Fusaro.
The difference is David didn't learn his lesson while crashing to the ice after being felled in a fight by the 5-foot-6, 140-pound product of Kenai Central.
In a Nov. 14 loss to the Avs at the Soldotna Sports Center, Schwartz, who is 5-9, 175 pounds, and Fusaro dropped the gloves. Fusaro, who grew up between Kenai and Soldotna, was able to land several blows before taking Schwartz to the ice.
"I've always been tough because, my whole life, I've been small," said Fusaro, who has increased his point total to eight with three goals and two assists in his last five games. "It's always taken me a lot of hard work."
Fusaro said this was his second fight in junior hockey. In his first, Fusaro said he fought a 6-4 player to a draw. David said Fusaro's pugilistic prowess is only surprising to those who judge the forward by his size.
"There's not much to explain why he can out-skate, out-compete, outhustle and be more physical than bigger and stronger players, except that he has the heart that he does," David said.
David also fell prey to judging Fusaro by his looks at an August preseason camp in Minnesota. During the three days there, David, then the assistant, kept hearing murmurs about how much Fusaro would bring to the Brown Bears, but David could not help but be skeptical.
"He was not too impressive," David said. "I think that in my first impression, I did not see what makes him a good player."
David said Fusaro is the type of player that makes talent scouting for junior hockey tough. Instead of standing out immediately, Fusaro shows his value over time.
"He has chipped away every single day and probably been our most consistent player overall," David said. "He goes along with every great coach's idea that the main ingredient in becoming an elite hockey player is consistency."
After teaming up with Owen Dukowitz and current Brown Bears points leader Jed McGlasson to form the top line that led the Kardinals to an undefeated season in the North Star Conference in his senior year in 2007, Fusaro played the next season in the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League.
Fusaro was then drafted by the Brown Bears and he jumped at the chance to once again claim Soldotna Sports Center ice as home ice.
"It's what I always dreamed about growing up," Fusaro said. "I hoped there would be a junior team by the time I was old enough to play. I love playing for my hometown."
Last season, Fusaro had four goals and seven assists in 44 games for Kenai River. After the season, coach Brent Agrusa left the team and was replaced by Marty Quarters. Quarters was fired early in the season and David took over.
Fusaro started slow this season. Before his current five-game streak of points began on Nov. 14, Fusaro's last point came on Sept. 25 in a loss at North Iowa.
"I've kind of adjusted to all of the change the team has had," Fusaro said. "I've been looking at it the right way, not looking at the negatives and looking at the positives. I always give it my best, no matter what."
David said Fusaro is a natural-born leader, and the coach is hoping Fusaro's consistent approach rubs off on the rest of the team. Fusaro is one of three players, joining McGlasson and Jake Musselman, who have appeared in every game for the Brownies this season. He also has started to earn his way onto the power-play unit, the penalty-kill unit and Kenai River's top line.
"He would not be getting the playing time if he wasn't competing better and harder than many guys in this league," David said.
Even though Fusaro has been seeing more time on special teams and top lines, his scoring spurt is not due to falling into comfort with a line. He said each of his five recent points has come with different lines.
"I'd like the team to be thinking, 'What if all of us, as individuals, competed that hard consistently? What if all of us started getting a point every game, or every two games?'" David said.
The Brown Bears have lost seven straight games, and the schedule for the rest of the season is not easy. The Brown Bears are in last place in the West Division with a 5-20-1 record. The top two teams in the West Division, the Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild and the Avalanche, also have the two best records in the North American Hockey League.
The Fairbanks Ice Dogs, which come to town for 7:30 p.m. games tonight and Saturday and a 5 p.m tilt on Sunday, are traditionally one of the league's top teams. The Ice Dogs are currently third in the West with a 13-11-1 mark.
The Brown Bears have 32 regular-season games left, and just six of them are out of the division.
"You've got to give credit where credit is due," Fusaro said. "The other three teams in this division are very good. In another division, we could be the top team or the second top team."
Due to the age limit, Fusaro will not be able to compete with the Brown Bears next season. He said he's gotten some interest from Division III programs, and David has no doubt that Fusaro can succeed in college.
"At that level, 90 percent of your day is not spent on the ice, but 100 percent of your day is dedicated to hockey," David said. "What they're looking for is student-athletes that have time management, maturity and are willing to attack each day.
"Brad is an all-around capable guy. I have no doubt he can do it."
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