Kenai River Brown Bears forward Brandon Lajoie (arm raised) celebrates his first-period goal Friday, Jan. 17, 2020, against the Maine Nordiques at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai River Brown Bears forward Brandon Lajoie (arm raised) celebrates his first-period goal Friday, Jan. 17, 2020, against the Maine Nordiques at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Anchorage gets an NAHL team

The Kenai River Brown Bears of the North American Hockey League have a new rival, a new partner and are one step closer to a less expensive financial future.

The NAHL announced Monday that it had approved a team in Anchorage starting in the 2021-22 season.

The Wolverines will become the Midwest Division rival of the Brown Bears.

“We have always been interested in expanding the NAHL in the West, but the situation has to be right to in order to grow NAHL hockey,” Mark Frankenfeld, NAHL Commissioner and President, said in a released statement. “The combination of the facility, the market, the history, and the wonderful ownership group brought forward as the Anchorage Wolverines is second to none.

“This organization is more than ready and capable to hit the ground sprinting and we look forward to how impactful they will be as members of the NAHL and our players in the very near future.”

Chris Hedlund, the general manager of the Brown Bears, said the dream has always been to get enough teams in Alaska, or at least the West, so the Bears could drastically cut travel costs by not being in a division with teams in the Midwest.

The Fairbanks Ice Dogs have been in the league since 2003, while the Brown Bears have been in the NAHL since 2007. There was a third Alaska team in the league until the Alaska Avalanche, which began in 2005 as the Wasilla Spirit, moved to Johnstown, Pennsylvania, for the 2012-13 season.

Hedlund said a third team in Alaska will reduce costs a bit, but not nearly as much as an Alaska or West Division would.

“It’s not a huge needle mover,” Hedlund said. “It will give us more games against Alaska teams. But it’s not near the level of what a fourth team would do. A fourth team is really critical to keeping costs down.”

Hedlund said there has been talk of another team from Alaska or the Seattle area coming to the NAHL. With the third team in place in Anchorage, Hedlund said he hopes a group will now make the leap because travel costs would be so much lower.

The Bears and Wolverines will be in the Midwest Division with the Ice Dogs, the Chippewa (Wisconsin) Steel, Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets, Minnesota Magicians, Minnesota Wilderness and Springfield (Illinois) Jr. Blues.

The Brown Bears have gotten some of their best players from the Anchorage area.

“It’s definitely going to make it harder to get some of the key players up there like we’ve gotten in the past,” Hedlund said. “There’s going to be more competition and it gives the players more alternatives.

“As an organization, it will make us have to work harder.”

Hedlund also sees value in the rivalry that will develop. Anchorage has a large hockey market. The professional Alaska Aces played their last season in 2016-17. The Division I University of Alaska Anchorage program has to raise $3 million by Aug. 30 to stay alive.

“It’s a big market,” Hedlund said. “I’m sure they’ll be bringing groups down for games, and hopefully we’ll have fans going up for games.”

The Wolverines ownership group is Aaron Schutt, Ryan Binkley, Kai Binkley Sims, John Ellsworth Jr. and Jay Frawner. Sims will be the organization’s president.

“It’s a strong ownership group with a lot of relationships around Alaska,” Hedlund said. “That will help junior hockey as a whole.”

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