The past month has been a time of addition for Kenai River Brown Bears head coach Josh Petrich.
After Petrich and wife, Desi, celebrated the birth of their first son, Landon George, on May 10 in Soldotna, the Bears selected five in the North American Hockey League Draft on Tuesday.
When Petrich took the job before last season, he made it clear he would spend all year on the central Kenai Peninsula and not return to Minnesota for the summer.
“The community has been awesome,” Petrich said. “We just love it up here. I wanted to be a part of this community and do all the stuff in the summer.”
The coach wants to build a program where the players feel a similar affinity for the community, because the lifeblood of any successful NAHL program is second- and third-year players.
So far, so good for Petrich’s plan. The coach protected all the returners he could for the draft — 10 forwards, six defensemen and two goalies.
“I think the thing that’s huge is all the players are wanting to come back and asking when the report date is,” said Petrich, whose squad was 18-38-1-3 last season. “That’s the biggest piece.
“The community showed how great of a time it can be up here and we had success on the ice, winning three of our last four against Fairbanks. The group is eager to get back and improve on last year.”
Three of the Bears players aged out. David Kaplan has signed to play for Division III University of Wisconsin-Superior next season, Joey Rosa is going to school and not playing hockey, and Gil Garcia has signed a pro contract with the Nykoping Gripen in Sweden.
Kenai Central product Ross Hanson has decided to go to school at Montana State in Boseman, while the Bears traded Carter Wade and Luke Posner to the NAHL expansion Maryland Black Bears for assets.
The Bears also gained a veteran by acquiring Andy Walker from the Aberdeen (South Dakota) Wings. Petrich said Walker, a left-handed forward in his last year of junior eligibility who had five goals and four assists in 37 games for the Wings last season, will take on a role similar to that of Kaplan.
Add the eight players the Bears have tendered, and the squad had 26 total protected players going into the draft. Teams draft until they hit 31 protected players, so the Bears made five picks Tuesday.
With their first two picks, the Bears addressed a shortage of left-handed defensemen. The team has four right-handed defensemen and two left-handed defensemen eligible to return, but one of the lefties is Eagle River’s Cam McDonald. Petrich said there is a good chance McDonald will move up to the United States Hockey League, the top junior league in the United States.
The top pick is JJ Boucher, a 6-foot-1, 180-pound defensemen from Gloucester, Ontario, with two years of eligibility left. Boucher played 61 games in the Central Canada Hockey League last season, with eight goals and 14 assists.
“JJ is a big defenseman who skates well and has a good outlet pass,” Petrich said. “He’s a physical kid who wore the assistant captain’s patch for his team.”
The next lefty defenseman, taken in the second round, is even bigger. Owen Arfstrom is 6-5, 200 pounds. Arfstrom is from North Oaks, Minnesota, but skated in Canada in the Maritime Junior A Hockey League last season, with three goals and 11 assists in 53 games. He is in his last year of junior eligibility.
Petrich skated with Arfstrom right after Petrich was named the Bears head coach, but Arfstrom had already committed to play in Canada last season. The coach is happy to add the former Shattuck-St. Mary’s skater to the fold.
The Bears continued to add size, skating ability and leadership with the next three picks.
Thomas Walker, who won a Class A state title in Minnesota at Orono High School last season, was taken in the fourth round. Walker is a 6-1, 195-pound right-handed forward with two years of eligibility left. For Orono, he had 22 goals and 23 assists in 31 games.
Teddy Lagerback won a Class AA state title with Minnetonka High School. Lagerback is a 6-0, 180-pound forward who will be a senior in high school. He has already committed to Arizona State and had 19 goals and 19 assists in 31 games. He was taken in the sixth round.
Petrich said the Bears are not looking to take Lagerback out of high school, but have him play the 15 games before the high school season and nine games, plus playoffs, after the Minnesota season.
In the fifth round, the Bears took Jack Collins, a 6-2, 190-pound left-handed forward. Collins is from Canton, New York, but played in the Central Canada Hockey League last season, where he had two goals and seven assists in 58 games. He has four more years of eligibility.
“Last year was different, there were a lot of unknowns,” Petrich said. “This year, there will be a lot of great players fighting for roster spots.”
Main camp for the Bears will be July 10 to 15 in Minnesota, where Petrich will determine which 28 or 30 players come to the peninsula in August.
Next up for Petrich and the Bears is Brown Bears night at Coral Seymour Memorial Park on Saturday.