Believe it or not, the heavy metal band Megadeth once played a show at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.
The title of the band’s January 1988 release, “So Far, So Good… So What!” is entirely appropriate for a more regular occupant of the sports complex — the Kenai River Brown Bears.
Kenai River head coach Josh Petrich is completely satisfied with Main Camp, the six-day event that concluded Sunday. That doesn’t mean he’s about to say his club is winning the North American Hockey League’s Robertson Cup.
The coach set breaking a four-year drought in the playoffs and winning the Ravn Cup, the seasonlong battle with the Fairbanks Ice Dogs, as the team’s goals at this point.
Petrich, who will be in his second year as head coach, knows all too well how many variables lie ahead for his team. In 2015, Petrich won the Robertson Cup as an assistant for the Minnesota Wilderness. He said the team was actually better the year before, but was felled by five key injuries.
“Things are shaping up to be the success we want,” Petrich said. “It’s still a day-by-day battle, and we have to take it that way.”
Petrich said the process of cutting the Main Camp roster from 125 to the 32 that will travel to the Kenai Peninsula in late August was buoyed by the returners in camp.
“It elevates the pace of the camp,” Petrich said of the veterans. “There were a couple of skates the veterans weren’t in, and the physicality and pace were definitely different.
“That was something we had to build last year, but hopefully the vets can build it this year through leadership.”
Petrich said last year he was hired May 15 and there was still uncertainty about the Bears in hockey circles because the team had nearly went dormant after the previous season.
“This year it’s a change in culture,” he said. “We have the hockey world starting to talk about the program as a premier destination to develop and grow as a hockey player and as a young man.”
The coach said the returners are a big part of that. The team had 20 eligible to return, and Petrich is counting six as not returning at this point. Carter Wade and Luke Posner have been traded, Tyler Miknich and Ross Hanson will go to college, Cam McDonald is headed to the United States Hockey League and Joseph Allegrini is pursuing opportunities in Canada.
Petrich said he doesn’t count a player as “in” until he sees that player at training camp, but he’s certain the Bears will have a lot of returners.
“The returning players are gung-ho and they’re our best asset in recruiting other players,” Petrich said.
For example, returner Michael Spethmann played a major role in the Bears finding JJ Boucher, who ended up being the team’s top pick in the NAHL Draft. Spethmann and Boucher skated together this summer at a camp for the Fargo (North Dakota) Force of the USHL.
Spethmann knew the Bears needed left-handed defensemen and knew Boucher, who is from Gloucester, Ontario, would be fine with playing in Alaska. Spethmann told Petrich and the rest is history.
Petrich also is excited about the advances the players have made with strength, mentioning specifically Preston Weeks, Gavin Enright and Bronson Adams. The coach said such gains can’t be made during the rigors of the regular season.
“I saw a big gain in the vets in their strength,” Petrich said. “They were able to hold people off pucks and win battles in corners.”
He said such gains make possible a jump like the one Wasilla’s Tanner Schachle made last season for the Fairbanks Ice Dogs, going from 11 goals and six assists in 2016-17 to 24 goals and 27 assists last season. He will play for the University of Alaska Anchorage this season.
Petrich also is optimistic about a better travel schedule. Not counting the four games at the NAHL Showcase Tournament in Blaine, Minnesota, from Sept. 19 to 22, the Bears play just eight games out of division — four against the Topeka (Kansas) Pilots and four against the Corpus Christi (Texas) IceRays.
All the rest are division games against the Ice Dogs (12 games), the Springfield (Illinois) Jr. Blues (10 games), the Minnesota Magicians (10 games), the Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets (eight games) and the Chippewa (Wisconsin) Steel (eight games).
“We were second to last in the league last year and I don’t beat around the bush about that,” said Petrich, whose club finished 18-38-1-3. “But we were also 9-14-1 against the four Robertson Cup teams.”
The coach said new assistant coach Dan Bogdan also had a successful debut at camp. Bogdan will replace Nick Sova, who also was at camp.
“The one thing both have in common is both are players’ coaches,” Petrich said. “They’re going to make sure the boys are happy and the boys are taken care of.”
The Bears next must get from 32 to 25 players from the start of training camp on Aug. 27 until the start of the Showcase.