Things have been extremely eventful since the Kenai River Brown Bears snapped a string of 30 North American Hockey League games without a win Saturday with a 4-2 victory over the host Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (Pennsylvania) Knights.
After the game, Geoff Beauparlant, who had led the squad for 2 1/2 seasons, told the team he was being removed as head coach.
The plan was for the Bears to arrive back on the central Kenai Peninsula on Sunday night and have a full week of practice under new coach Jeff Worlton to prepare for today’s and Saturday’s 7:30 p.m. games at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex against the Minnesota Wilderness, the defending Robertson Cup champions.
But as has often been the case in this 2-31-1 season, things didn’t work out for the Bears as planned.
Due to weather, flights were delayed from Philadelphia to Detroit on Sunday. With such a big group, it became impossible to keep the team together and get them home Sunday.
“It was different because the responsibility I had ended Saturday night,” said Beauparlant, who has not yet decided if he will continue with the team in an administrative capacity. “A couple of players were joking, ‘Hey coach, don’t leave us.’
“That wasn’t going to happen. That’s not what hockey guys do.”
While one group of Bears made it back Sunday night, two more groups didn’t arrive until Tuesday morning. Naturally, all their bags didn’t make it.
“After dealing with the bag tags, it was close to 2:45 (a.m.) when we left Anchorage, and we rolled in at a quarter to six,” Beauparlant said. “So that was 52 to 55 hours of travel.”
Because so much gear had yet to arrive, Worlton was not able to hold practice Tuesday. That left him two days of practice to prepare for the weekend.
“We had practice today and it was a good practice,” Worlton said. “They were competing and the energy was high. It was good to see.”
The coach said it’s hard to reinvent the wheel with two practices. Wednesday, the squad worked on a breakouts while Thursday’s practice was defensive zone and penalty kill.
“We’re looking to start fresh and start a new season for us,” Worlton said. “That’s how we’ll go at it.
“We’re looking to bring energy and make sure the guys work, win or lose. Hopefully, if we work hard and believe in what we are doing, we’ll get a win.”
The departure of Beauparlant from the head coaching position is not the only change. Assistants Andrew Whiteside and Paul Walker also decided to leave the team.
Joel Christianson and Jed McGlasson will be the assistants. Both are local products, with Christianson having served as a part-time assistant for the Bears for a long time.
McGlasson is a former standout for the Bears and Kenai Central High School, where his head coach was current Bears general manager Nate Kiel. McGlasson has never been an assistant at this level.
“It’s really exciting to have a local star and one of the best players to come out of the Peninsula coaching us,” Kiel said.
Worlton said goalie Brian Baker also decided to leave the team. He will be replaced by Magnus Lindhe, who played for Worlton with the Breezy Point (Minnesota) North Stars of the NA3HL. Worlton left that job to come to Kenai River.
Lindhe saw some time for the Brookings (South Dakota) Blizzard in the NAHL this season, going 1-3 with a 3.64 goals-against average and .855 save percentage.
The Bears have also traded forward Cam Cook to the Fairbanks Ice Dogs for forward Austin Junger, who is 6-foot-2, 175. Worlton said Cook wanted to be a part of a playoff team.
“Junger is a kid with a lot of potential and a lot of talent,” Worlton said. “He’s a good-sized kid with a high compete level.”
The Wilderness are 22-10-3, good for the third-best record in the league. Minnesota has 10 Division I commitments, best in the league. The Bears’ lone Division I commitment, Jake Hartje, was actually traded from the Wilderness to the Bears after he had committed.
“I’ve just watched film on them,” Worlton said. “They are a team that wants to play offensive and enter the zone with speed.
“I think this is going to be a good opportunity to start a new season for us.”
Worlton’s pro career from 2001 to 2006 in the ECHL, CHL and UHL reveals a total of three goals, five assists and 1,122 penalty minutes for the defenseman, according to hockeydb.com.
A YouTube search for “Jeff Worlton hockey” brings up a nice selection of occasions where Worlton dropped the gloves.
“Yea, that was part of my job,” Worlton said. “The game has changed nowadays and fighting is definitely not as prevalent in today’s game.”
He said fans will see an aggressive and competitive style of play, but not a game filled with fights. The North Stars are nowhere near the top of the league in penalty minutes.
“We’re not looking to go out there and fight,” Worlton said. “We just want to make sure we’re competing and that we’re team tough.”