The 1,113 fans that flocked to the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex on Friday to celebrate, and try to preserve, the bonds of hockey, family and Alaska community ironically fell victim to those same bonds.
The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (Pennsylvania) Knights defeated the Bears 4-2, with the difference in the game being a pair of power-play goals by the Knights.
And how those extra-man tallies came about tells a whole lot about how the game drew so many fans on a night when organizers looking to save the Bears were trying to pack in 2,500 fans to show they mean business about keeping the team.
Knights coach Tom Kowal grew up in Anchorage. He says he spent at least eight Thanksgiving weekends playing youth tournaments at the sports complex and eating the big holiday meal at the King Salmon Inn in Soldotna.
And with him all the way was his father, Dan Kowal, who spent three years as an assistant coach with the Anchorage Aces, who have since become the Alaska Aces and will fold after this season.
So after WBS was routed in Fairbanks 7-0 and 6-0 last weekend, getting outscored 5-0 on the power play by the Ice Dogs, Tom let his father give his squad a power-play lesson at Friday’s pregame skate.
“Sometimes, it helps to hear it from a different voice,” Kowal said. “My dad didn’t say anything different than I did, but he’s coached a lot longer than I have.
“He had the special formula to get the power play going.”
Kowal said he still reads the Alaska Dispatch News on his phone every day, and news of the impending doom for the Aces and the fight for survival by the Brown Bears has hurt.
“It’s a blessing in disguise to be here on save the Bears weekend,” Kowal said. “I want nothing more than to see hockey succeed in the state of Alaska.
“This is my home state. I grew up playing here and hockey has given me so many opportunities in my life. It’s tough to see any of it go away.”
Kenai River head coach Jeff Worlton said his club may have been a little awed playing in front of, by far, the biggest home crowd his season, but that in the end the atmosphere gave his team energy.
“It was unbelievable,” Worlton said. “The people in these communities do such a great job of supporting us.”
The Knights’ Tim Gelatt and the Bears’ Carter Wade got things rolling in what would be a chippy contest by dropping the gloves just 3 minutes, 17 seconds, after the opening faceoff. Jack Vincent of the Bears and Dorian Dawson of the Knights also had an altercation in the second period.
WBS is now 27-25-1-3 and locked into the fourth playoff spot in the North American Hockey League East Division, while the Bears are 11-43-2-0 and out of the playoffs.
But the fights served notice the Knights, traveling with just 19 players, would be looking to shake off last weekend’s sweep. The Bears showed they hadn’t given up on the season.
“Some teams think we’re going to come out and lie down,” Worlton said. “We seem to keep pushing back.”
Paul Cimilluca scored just before the end of the first period for a 1-0 lead, then a power-play tally by Gelatt sent the Knights into the third period with a 2-0 advantage. Particularly costly for the Bears, who were 0 for 4 on the power play, was 1:10 of scoreless five-on-three in the second period.
“I just told them the third period is always our period and we had them right where we wanted them,” Worlton said of his pep talk heading into the final 20 minutes.
Things really got rollicking when Luke Radetic, assisted by David Kaplan and Jonathan Marzec, scored 2:53 into the third. Brown Bears custom is to throw one fish on the ice to celebrate the first goal, but fans let loose with a torrent of four this time.
About two and a half minutes later, another salmon was flying through the air when Marzec earned a penalty shot and cleanly beat WBS goalie Grant Valentine for a tie game.
Marzec and Radetic lead the Bears in points, but it was the first goal in 11 games for Radetic and the second in eight games for Marzec.
“It was good to see them get the monkey off their backs,” Worlton said. “Hopefully, it lights a fire under them for tomorrow.”
But the Dan Kowal power play would come through again for the Knights, with Sam Antonitsch scoring the game-winner with 4:05 left to play with just one second left on the advantage. Vince Marino would add insurance less than a minute later.
Robbie Goor made 26 saves for the Bears, while Valentine had 18 for the Knights.
The same two teams play Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in what will be the last home game of the season, and possibly the last home game ever, for the Brown Bears.
Knights 4, Brown Bears 2
WBS 1 1 2 — 4
Kenai River 0 0 2 — 2
First period — 1. WBS, Cimilluca (Maust, Morrissey), 17:54. Penalties — WBS 4 for 19:00; Kenai River 4 for 19:00.
Second period — 2. WBS, Gelatt (Antonitsch, Kidney), pp, 7:14. Penaltites — WBS 5 for 21:00; Kenai River 6 for 23:00.
Third period — 3. Kenai River, Radetic (Kaplan, Marzec), 2:53; 4. Kenai River, Marzec, penalty shot, 5:22; 5. WBS, Antonitsch (Gelatt, Dawson), pp, 15:55; 6. WBS, Marino (Danchenko, Jackson), 16:31. Penalties — WBS 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal — WBS 10-12-8—30; Kenai River 7-8-5—20.
Goalies — WBS, Valentine (20 shots, 18 saves); Kenai River, Goor (30 shots, 26 saves).