With the growth of the NHL into warmer-climate markets in the 1990s came the growth of talented youth players coming from those climates.
But that hasn’t been a problem for the Kenai River Brown Bears, and Jake Friedman of Lighthouse Point, Florida, is an example of why.
“A lot of kids hear Alaska and say, ‘I don’t know,’” Kenai River head coach Jeff Worlton said. “Then they get up here and love it.
“They love our fans — our fan support is awesome. They love the community and they love the weather — it’s hockey weather. They love the environment. It’s a nice arena and the kids are treated well up here.”
Friedman, son of Keith Friedman and Jennifer Horvath, was playing Under-18 midget hockey in early December when he found out he had a chance to move up to the North American Hockey League and join the Bears.
Friedman, 18, already knew about Kenai River from fellow Florida skater Justin Bofshever, who played 36 games for the Bears in the 2015-16 season, so there was no hesitation.
“He said playing here was the best year of his life,” said Friedman, a 5-foot-10, 170-pound forward. “I took a chance and I’m glad I did. There aren’t mountains all around in Florida.”
Friedman also said extended time playing in Minnesota made him ready for winters.
“It’s awesome,” he said. “There was snow in Minnesota, but it was nothing like this level.
“The scenery up here is something I can’t get enough of.”
Friedman’s father moved to Florida from New York when he was 15, and continued to play hockey. It was at a men’s league game that Jake sat in the stands and decided he wanted to take up the game.
John Griffin, who had also coached Jake’s father, began to teach the game to Jake.
“He’s like a second father to me,” Friedman said.
As a freshman, Friedman enrolled at Shattuck-St. Mary’s in Minnesota, a hockey talent factory which produced NHL players like Sidney Crosby, Zach Parise and Jonathan Toews.
He had 21 goals and 30 assists for the AA team in 2013-14, and 16 goals and 13 assists for the AAA team in 2014-15.
But in his junior year, with his parents going through a divorce, he moved closer to home to be there for younger siblings Kyle, 15, Kayley, 12, and Kelsey, 8.
But thanks to TPM Thunder coach Paul Flache, Friedman said his hockey career did not stall.
“The TPH coach is one of the best guys I’ve ever met,” Friedman said. “He’s one of the main reasons I’m here.”
Another reason is David Maciuk, Friedman’s player adviser. Friedman was taken in the 14th round of the NAHL Draft before this season by the Shreveport (Louisiana) Mudbugs, but did not make the team.
“They said they wanted me bigger and stronger so I dedicated myself to the gym in the U18 season,” Friedman said.
Maciuk, also the adviser to current Brown Bears players Sam Sterne, David Kaplan, Anthony Tzveyn and Luke Radetic, contacted Worlton in December and said Friedman was ready.
Worlton trusts Maciuk so he took Friedman sight unseen.
“He said, ‘He’ll help you score if you give him time to put it all together,’” Worlton said. “The kid came up and has been up and down, but it seems like he hit his stride.”
Friedman had three goals in a Feb. 10 and 11 series at Fairbanks.
“He has high-end speed with a good shot and good puck skills,” Worlton said.
Worlton also said Friedman has a knack for finding dead ice, or space from which to operate in an opponent’s zone.
That, according to Friedman, comes from the ages of 11 to 13, when he did The Hockey Intelligym, a brain-training game on a computer designed to increase awareness and decision-making on the ice.
Friedman, billet son of Chris and Marcy True of Kenai, said he has grown under Worlton’s coaching style. Worlton is focused on making Friedman a more gritty player and on making him better in the defensive zone.
“He’s very player-oriented,” Friedman said. “He was a player and he knows what you need to practice and what’s going to make you better.”