Almost exactly one year ago, as the Kenai River Brown Bears entered their final home series of the season, the future of the Bears was iffy at best and the future of the North American Hockey League in Alaska was not much better.
Friday and Saturday, the Bears are taking their final “home” weekend of the season on the road to Palmer and Anchorage to play the Fairbanks Ice Dogs — the only other NAHL team in Alaska — in hopes of giving the league a firmer footing in this state than it has ever had.
“Both of the venues provide a great opportunity and platform to grow the NAHL product in Alaska,” Mark Frankenfeld, commissioner and president of the NAHL, said in a video released to promote the event.
What a difference a year makes.
On Feb. 26, 2017, the Brown Bears announced they would be inactive for this season. But leading up to the final home series of the season, a group of fans, led by Steve Stuber, came up with a “Save the Bears” effort.
Large crowds showed up to watch that weekend’s games at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex, throwing tons of fish on the ice and watching players hoist “Save the Bears” signs around after the Saturday game.
Between March 22 and April 15, Stuber’s group raised $300,000 and on April 18 the Bears were reactivated by the league.
One person breathing a sigh of relief that Tuesday was Rob Proffitt, general manager of the Ice Dogs. The Ice Dogs are one of the league’s top organizations, consistently drawing crowds of over 2,000 to the Big Dipper Ice Arena, where fans clamor to watch a team that has won three Robertson Cups.
But if the Brown Bears had gone away, the Ice Dogs would have been the only NAHL team on the West Coast, creating multiple hurdles for the franchise to survive in the league.
So it’s a complete 180 to reach Proffitt one year later in the Anchorage area at 8 p.m. Wednesday and hear him describe his day.
“It’s been a grind,” he said. “It started at 7:30 this morning. All day I’ve been doing TV, newspaper, radio and meeting with potential ownership groups.”
The Ice Dogs and Brown Bears will meet at 7:30 tonight at the MTA Events Center in Palmer and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the O’Malley Sports Complex.
The purpose of putting the games in Anchorage and Palmer is to give fans a taste of NAHL action with an eye toward adding two additional NAHL teams in the state, creating a four-team Alaska division that would ease travel burdens on the Brown Bears and Ice Dogs.
The Alaska division has been a longtime dream of folks like Proffitt and Nate Kiel, who has been the general manager of the Brown Bears since their second season in 2008-09.
When the Brown Bears joined the league, that dream was one team away from reality. The Matanuska-Susitna valleys were home to an NAHL team from 2005 to 2012.
But entering the Anchorage market for that fourth NAHL team while the Valley’s Alaska Avalanche were still afloat was always considered a heavy lift because of the presence of the professional Alaska Aces and the University of Alaska Anchorage.
Times have changed.
The Aces left Anchorage after the 2016-17 season. UAA continues to struggle finding success, firing coach Matt Thomas after he went 48-105-21 in his five seasons. The Anchorage Daily News reported that home attendance has been below 2,000 in two of UAA’s last three seasons.
Proffitt knows how to bring a successful junior hockey organization into such a situation.
When the professional Alaska Gold Kings folded after the 1996-97 season, Proffitt was one of those in the room as the junior hockey Ice Dogs were formed for the 1997 season with Proffitt as head coach and general manager.
“I don’t know that we had the vision that we’d get here 21 years later,” Proffitt said. “We weren’t thinking we’d win three national championships and put over 100 kids in Division I hockey.
“We just wanted to create something that had been in Fairbanks for two weekends a month since 1978.”
An NAHL team sweeping in and succeeding after a pro team departs has worked in numerous other markets, including Corpus Christi, Texas; Odessa, Texas; Amarillo, Texas; and Shreveport, Louisiana.
The level of play in the NAHL is, naturally, not as high as in pro leagues. Proffitt said abandoned pro fans still have the potential to get enamored with the junior game.
“How can you not wrap your arms around a kid playing a game to try and get to college and have that education paid for?” Proffitt said. “How can you not wrap your arms around a guy who loves hockey and is using it to better his life and reach his goals?
“It’s worked a long time in Fairbanks, and it’s working in Kenai. Whether you talk about Anchorage, Eagle River, Palmer, Wasilla, Juneau, wherever, the model is in place and the community wraps their arms around it.”
Signs were that Anchorage and the Valley were wrapping their arms around the weekend games. Each rink holds about 1,200, and as of Wednesday Proffitt said 800 tickets at $10 a pop had been sold for each game.
“I know there’s a lot of intrigue to see what it’s all about,” Kenai River Brown Bears head coach Josh Petrich said. “That’s why we agreed to do this.
“We’re showing them how it can work, now they just have to take the next step.”
Kiel and Petrich arrived in Anchorage on Thursday to help promote and organize the event.
Kiel has a lifetime of experience in the Southcentral hockey scene and sees no reason junior hockey can’t work in Anchorage and the Valley.
“There’s a certain pedigree up there with a lot of established hockey programs,” Kiel said. “The support for the sport is huge up there.
“I think they’re going to see great hockey and that will only help to build the excitement.”
Still, according to Proffitt, the franchise fee is $400,000 and yearly operations are $750,000 to $1.2 million. Coming up with money like that takes serious planning, and that’s why Proffitt said the realistic goal for two Alaska teams is the 2019-20 season.
Kiel knows better than most how hard it is to meet that yearly operating budget. He also said sponsorship and season ticket support has been great this year and the Bears are planning to continue whether there is an Alaska division or not.
The general manager said the team has been able to meet its goals of a high level of community service and getting more Alaska players on the roster.
Petrich said the team has been out in the community for 1,000 hours. There are seven Alaska players on the 23-man roster, including Soldotna’s Preston Weeks and Kenai’s Ross Hanson.
But Kiel still dreams about the possibilities created by an Alaska division. The decreased travel and travel costs are one obvious reason, but behind-the-scenes responsibilities also become easier.
When teams travel north to play Kenai River and Fairbanks, those two organizations must provide lodging, meals and local transportation while those visiting teams are here for two weeks. Kiel said that’s currently 60 days per season.
Teams from in-state would come in Friday and leave Sunday at the latest, drastically cutting those responsibilities.
Providing more community service also becomes easier with decreased travel. Petrich said he’s proud of the 1,000 hours of community service because travel takes the Bears away from the peninsula so much. The Bears had just four home dates between Nov. 25 and Feb. 3.
Kiel also said additional sponsorship and revenue opportunities would be opened up by the rivalries and fan travel a four-team Alaska league would create.
All this has longtime NAHL supporters like Proffitt and Kiel feeling good this weekend.
“I’m very excited and optimistic,” Proffitt said. “There’s a lot of energy and synergy, but we don’t have any contracts signed. It’s a heck of an investment.”
Added Kiel: “All of us who’ve been involved have done it for the kids and the greater good of the sport. For me, it’s been a longtime passion going back to coaching youth hockey. I think it’s tremendous we’re all working together to find a way to grow junior hockey in our state.”