Jeff Helminiak / Peninsula Clarion
Kenai River Brown Bears forward Brandon Lajoie (arm raised) celebrates his first-period goal on Jan. 17 against the Maine Nordiques at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.

Jeff Helminiak / Peninsula Clarion Kenai River Brown Bears forward Brandon Lajoie (arm raised) celebrates his first-period goal on Jan. 17 against the Maine Nordiques at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.

Brown Bears back in action Saturday

Team will release new season schedule any day now

The Kenai River Brown Bears will be back in action Saturday at the Chippewa (Wisconsin) Steel at 4:10 p.m. AKST.

The team has been out of action since Nov. 14, when the Brown Bears lost to the Steel 4-3 to fall to 3-1-0-0 on the season. Nov. 18, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz implemented coronavirus restrictions that shut down hockey rinks in the state. Since the Bears are temporarily based in Minnesota, that meant Kenai River had to pause its season.

There are four other North American Hockey League teams based in Minnesota. The Austin Bruins have played 11 games, the St. Cloud Norsemen have played 10 games, the Minnesota Wilderness have played three games and the Minnesota Magicians have yet to play a game. The Lone Star (Texas) Brahmas lead the league in games played at 19.

Like the Brown Bears, the Fairbanks Ice Dogs are temporarily based in Minnesota and have played four games.

Chris Hedlund, general manager for the Brown Bears, said the team got back together in Minnesota on Monday.

“They’re definitely excited to be back with the guys,” Hedlund said. “Your team is your fraternity. They’re ready to play hockey and get back into it.”

Hedlund said the team will do off-ice activities and outdoor activities to get ready for Saturday’s game. Monday, rinks will open again in Minnesota. Hedlund said the team will then be based in Anoka or Breezy Point, depending on where restrictions are most favorable to the team.

Kenai River will then play Jan. 8 and 9 at the Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets. Those games will be in front of no fans due to coronavirus mitigation measures.

Hedlund said he is working on the schedule for the rest of the season, adding that the new schedule will be released any day now. He said the schedule currently on for the Brown Bears is not correct.

The Brown Bears were originally scheduled to return to Soldotna in January, but Hedlund said that will not happen.

“I think February is 50-50, but March is the more logical target now,” Hedlund said.

The general manager said the Bears need to know they can use the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex 30 to 45 days before a game can be scheduled there because of all the travel arrangements that must be made. Until the Bears are able to schedule at the sports complex, home games will be in Breezy Point, Minnesota.

Hedlund said the Bears are still doing OK financially.

“We definitely have been impacted by not having home games,” he said. “I’m still feeling confident in where we’re at financially. We’ll have good support when we get back. We’re not by any means in panic mode.”

Hedlund said some fans have been asking him if he is trying to move the team to Minnesota. He said the reason the team is based in Minnesota right now is because of the coronavirus. The Fairbanks Ice Dogs, a staple of that city, also have been based in Minnesota due to the coronavirus.

“We’re hoping to bring the fans in and get back to normal,” Hedlund said. “By no means are we looking to move to Minnesota.”

Hedlund said a Dec. 23 tweet from forward Laudon Poellinger sums up the way the organization feels right now. Said the tweet: “2 days before Christmas might be a tad late but, Dear Santa, All I ask for is to play Hockey @ The Soldotna Sports Center in front of the best fans in the NAHL in 2021.”

Wednesday, the NAHL announced it is extending the end of the regular season to May 16. Hedlund said the Bears will go to late April or early May in order to get in all 48 games, including those missed during the pause.

“We’re feeling pretty good as a team,” Hedlund said. “The players have such good chemistry because they spent a lot of time together in training camp in close quarters.”

Hedlund said the team has not lost any players during the break, but did pick up center Morgan Winters from the United States Hockey League, the only Tier I league in the United States. The NAHL is the only Tier II league in the country.

The NCAA is not allowing Division I hockey teams to travel to watch players until April 15. Even so, players have been picking up Division I commitments so Hedlund said the Kenai River players are anxious to get on the ice so they can at least be on HockeyTV.

“It’s been hard watching other players around the league commit during this pause,” Hedlund said.

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