This will either be remembered as the weekend that saved the Kenai River Brown Bears or one heck of a way to go out.
Steve Stuber, who is heading up the effort to keep the North American Hockey League team from going inactive next season, is betting on the former.
“I’m really optimistic we’re going to be here next year,” he said.
Stuber’s optimism was soaring after 1,113 fans showed up to watch the Bears lose 4-2 on Friday at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex, and his enthusiasm reached a new level Saturday when 1,236 came out to watch Kenai River score a 3-2 shootout victory, an appropriate sendoff for what could be the final time.
While the turnout on both nights fell short of packing the place with 2,500 fans, which was the original goal, Stuber said a message was still delivered.
“I wanted to show the community cared, and they poured out to show that (Friday) night,” Stuber said. “Did you see all the kids having fun?
“That’s what we’re talking about. It’s a safe environment where the kids can come and have fun while the adults relax, have a beer and enjoy the game.”
The push to save the team has also entered the agenda of the team itself. Dressed out in his Christmas-green Brown Bears sweater with his name emblazoned on the back, Brown Bears general manager Nate Kiel threw his and the organization’s support behind the grassroots effort prior to Saturday’s game, saying that he was very appreciative of Stuber’s work to keep the team in town.
“The Bears are much more than a hockey team,” Kiel said. “For 10 years, we have tried to represent the peninsula and state of Alaska around the country, we’ve worked in the local community in a myriad of ways.”
Whether it be nonprofit and fundraising work or community service, Kiel said the amount of charity work the players have donated and the time they’ve given over the years has been immeasurable, and Kiel said he has felt the love as well.
“It goes beyond hockey, it goes beyond community,” he said. “We do everything we can to generate support for everyone.”
Kiel added that the $300,000 goal that Stuber set to save the team was not far off an accurate assessment of what it will take to keep the organization afloat.
But the big question remains whether or not the team can keep the kind of support and attendance it received this weekend, when every ounce of energy was needed to show that the community still cares.
Kenai’s Lisa Zulkanycz, an ardent supporter of the team that has billeted players and whose son Zack Zulkanycz played for the team, believes there could be as high as an 80 percent chance of the team making a comeback.
“I believe there’s hope,” Zuklanycz said. “We’re banding together because we’re not ready to give up our hockey.”
Zulkanycz took part in Saturday’s ceremonial puck drop at center ice, and said the attendance and support over the weekend has helped inject new life into Stuber’s effort, which really began to take off after a committee meeting Tuesday night to get the word out about his drive to save the Bears.
“We really needed this to happen,” she said.
Hanging out Saturday night with Zulkanycz were several Brown Bears alumni, including Soldotna product Brad Duwe, who just wrapped up his senior year with the University of Alaska Anchorage Seawolves. Having grown up on the peninsula, Duwe praised the team and the facility for helping get his career on the high track, and said without those tools for success, he would have never been able to attain his goals.
“Kenai and Soldotna are not huge towns, and they’re small enough to support a team like this,” Duwe said.
Duwe racked up 41 goals and 60 assists in his three years playing with the Bears, a run that was preceded by a successful prep career with the Soldotna Stars.
Sterling resident Tammy Cobb is another diehard supporter of the organization, and hosts a player or two each year to help the team grow. This year, Cobb has housed defenseman Alex Dingeldien and forward David Kaplan.
A fan of the team since the beginning, Cobb said the team is a valuable asset to the Kenai and Soldotna communities.
“It’s important to have something like that in the community,” Cobb said. “I’ve been a hockey fan all my life, and I love these kids, they are wonderful men.
“You don’t lose the relationships with them.”
Another fervent Brown Bears fan, Casey Rudkin, is the unofficial team social media manager, working the controls of the Brown Bears Twitter feed. Rudkin became a Brown Bears fan even before her arrival in Soldotna two years ago, explaining that her husband, an assistant professor of English at UAA, informed her of the team’s existence before their move to the peninsula. A quick Twitter and Facebook search of the team was all that Rudkin needed to become addicted.
Rudkin said the team becomes the metaphorical glue for the community, as the games provide a fun place for fans of all ages to hang out on a weekend night, and the “Save the Bears” effort was something she could easily get behind.
“It’s one of the things for the community to have a rally point,” she said. “Everyone loves an underdog.”
One of the most recognizable voices of the Brown Bears games, Tod McGillivray, said his hope for the team has skyrocketed just within the last week.
“Last night I would’ve given them a 50-50 chance,” McGillivray said. “But talking to people, I think they realize that there’s still a chance to keep hockey down here.”
A Soldotna resident since 1979 when his father Kayo became the original Kenai Parks and Recreation director, Tod McGillivray has supported the team from the outset in 2007, and has worked over the years as the pump-up man for home games, giving the local crowd something to get excited about with his enthusiastic calls over the arena speakers. But, McGillivray added, the fans need to show up, and there’s one best way to help the attendance.
“You’ve got to win to put fans in the seats,” McGillivray said.
Even newer fans of the Bears have noticed the amount of support and jubilation the team attracted this weekend. Soldotna’s Travis Hedrick made the move to the peninsula within the last two weeks for work, but said his first game last weekend was a surprising experience.
“I had a great time last week, I look around and people are having a good time and talking,” Hedrick said. “It really seems like a good thing to (save the team), and it’d be a shame for this to go away.”
Stuber also said the weekend served as a reminder of how much fun it can be for the community to gather en masse to watch hockey. Crowds at the Bears games have been low in recent years as the Bears finished with the worst record in the league the last two seasons. This year, Kenai River will have the second-worst record in the league. But things got extremely loud in the third period Frday when Jonathan Marzec scored a penalty shot to tie the game at 2.
The crowd was just as wild Saturday night when the Bears opened the scoring in the first period with a power play goal from Tyler Rock. The score resulted in a massive deluge of over 20 salmon being thrown onto the ice from the fans, putting a monstrous twist on the team’s home game tradition.
“It was people excited and having fun and that’s my goal,” Stuber said. “My goal is to get everybody out as a community like that to have fun. That’s why I’m so excited about the turnout tonight.”
Stuber is also encouraged that the enthusiasm is not just limited to attendance. He said new season ticket buyers and sponsors are stepping up as well.