The Kenai River Brown Bears defeated the Fairbanks Ice Dogs 4-2 on Saturday in North American Hockey League play at the O’Malley Sports Complex in Anchorage.
Friday, the Bears had lost to the Ice Dogs 6-1 at the MTA Events Center in Palmer.
The two games were technically home contests for the Bears, moved north to try and drum up interest for NAHL expansion in Alaska.
The Ice Dogs still have the best record in the league at 44-7-3-3, while the Brown Bears snap a 10-game skid and move to 16-38-1-2, the worst mark in the league. But Kenai River continues to give Fairbanks trouble, moving to 3-6 against the Ice Dogs this season in the battle for the Ravn Cup, the seasonlong battle between the two teams.
The teams finish their regular season by playing Thursday, Friday and Saturday in Fairbanks. Even if the Bears win all three, the Ravn Cup still goes to the Ice Dogs because two of the Bears’ wins have been in extra time.
Friday night’s meeting between two Alaska rivals was the first NAHL action on the ice at Palmer’s MTA Events Center since March 2012.
If things go the way of the Dogs and Bears, it will not be the last time the ice hosts NAHL action.
In front of a swollen crowd of a reported 1,524 — some die-hard Brown Bears and Ice Dogs fans but mostly local hockey supporters — Fairbanks scored three times in the third period to skate off with a 6-1 victory.
Friday night, however, wasn’t about the final result, and not because both teams had already clinched their postseason destiny. It was about the atmosphere and the kind of reception that Fairbanks and Kenai River would get playing on neutral ice in front of such a packed crowd.
The reason the two NAHL rivals were meeting in the Matanuska-Susitna valleys at all was to drum up interest in the Valley and Anchorage communities and showcase the talent and entertaining play in hopes of adding more Alaska competition on the junior hockey scene. Saturday night’s clash between the same two teams at the O’Malley Sports Complex in Anchorage was for the same reason.
“This is a great atmosphere,” said Brown Bears general manager Nate Kiel, who spent part of the night hosting promotional games for the crowd between periods of play. “And it’s not just great for youth hockey fans, but it’s a great social event.
“It’s exactly what we need.”
Kiel and Fairbanks general manager Rob Proffitt both hope to see at lease one, ideally two, additional clubs come to Alaska, which could give the state its own NAHL division. That would significantly ease financial burdens on both organizations by cutting down on travel costs owed to visiting NAHL teams, which amounts to 60 hosting days a season, according to Kiel.
Kiel said Kenai River has had at least half a dozen volunteers working over the weekend to promote and organize the games.
“It gives Alaska youth hockey players a great brand of hockey to aspire to,” Kiel said. “It’s great for the community fanfare and activism, and we hope it fills a large void that exists in the state.”
The enthusiastic crowd, which not only packed the stands but lined the glass around the entire rink and the upper-level concourse, did not go unnoticed by the players and coaches.
“It was terrific, it was really rocking,” Ice Dogs head coach Trevor Stewart said. “It’s good to see the locals support junior hockey like this.”
Bears head coach Josh Petrich was an assistant on the 2011-12 Alaska Avalanche, the most recent year Alaska had more than two junior hockey teams in the NAHL. Petrich said Friday’s attendance dwarfs any he remembers, as he recalls no more than 700 fans in attendance at the arena that year.
“It’s pretty impressive here,” Petrich said. “The Mat-Su Valley fans proved tonight that this is what they want.”
The real head-turner lies in the fact that this time last year, the future of the Brown Bears was in serious doubt after it had been announced that the team would become inactive following the 2016-17 season.
A grassroots effort spearheaded by die-hard fan Steve Stuber raised the necessary $300,000 required to keep the team going by April 15, and now it appears the once dark future for the Bears is brightening considerably.
“A third team would be great, and four teams would be a win-win situation,” Kiel said.
As far as game action, the Brown Bears struggled Friday night, getting outshot 13-2 in the first period and 33-12 overall.
Kenai River was hit with four penalties in the opening 20 minutes, including a four-minute minor for a high-sticking call on Anchorage’s Tyler Miknich.
Fairbanks made Kenai River pay with the first goal of the night with just six seconds left on that power play. Erkka Vanska collected the puck from the right faceoff circle and slapped it home for his 18th of the season.
The Bears had a chance to answer with a power play shortly after, but the opportunity was spoiled with a penalty for too many men on the ice.
John Stampohar made it 2-0 early in the second on a swoop in from the right goal line.
“We’ve got to have a better start against these guys,” Petrich said. “They’re a team that likes to get in a track meet, and I didn’t think we started the first period how we should.”
The Bears eventually caught a break in the second on an Ice Dogs power play. Zach Krajnik took a steal and raced down the ice to notch a short-handed score, his seventh of the year, cutting the lead in half at 2-1.
“I thought that we had a little dose of reality in the second,” Stewart said. “We were cheating a little bit, we weren’t cleaning up loose pucks and keeping things clean.”
The good Kenai River vibes didn’t last long, however. Fairbanks responded 29 seconds later when Anchorage’s Daniel Haider poked in a goal amid a scrum near the crease, giving the Dogs a 3-1 advantage.
The Ice Dogs pushed the lead to 4-1 midway through the third period on a power-play strike from Robert Blueger.
Things got physical with 3:29 left in the game when Fairbanks’ Luke Mobley and Kenai River’s Markuss Komuls dropped the gloves, leading to 70 combined penalty minutes between the two teams.
Wasilla product Tanner Schachle notched a Fairbanks goal with three minutes left to the delight of the hometown fans.
Josh Benson made 11 saves for the Ice Dogs, while Gavin Enright stopped 27 for the Bears.
Saturday provided a happy homecoming for the six Anchorage or Eagle River players on Kenai River’s roster. The Anchorage hockey fans responded by filling the O’Malley Sports Complex to watch the game.
The Bears had to come back from two deficits to win the game. Fairbanks went up in the first on a Caleb Hite strike, but Alex Klekotka answered before the period was out.
Hite again put the Ice Dogs up in the second period, but Anchorage’s Miknich answered.
In the third, the Bears took the lead with 11:40 to play on a power play goal by Gil Garcia. Sacha Guillemain finished the Ice Dogs off with a tally with 1:23 to play.
Anchorage’s Kevin Lake made 33 saves for the Bears, while Logan Neaton stopped 23 for the Ice Dogs.
Ice Dogs 6, Brown Bears 1
Fairbanks 1 2 3 — 6
Kenai River 0 1 0 — 1
First period — 1. Fairbanks, Vanska (Orysiuk, Mayhew), pp, 15:30. Penalties — Fairbanks 1 for 5:00; Kenai River 4 for 10:00.
Second period — 2. Fairbanks, Stampohar (Wendt, Haider), 2:39; 3. Kenai River, Krajnik (Spethmann, C. McDonald), 5:50; 4. Fairbanks, Haider (Ruffin, Wendt), 6:19. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Third period — 4. Fairbanks, Blueger (Orysiuk, Vanska), pp, 10:38; 5. Fairbanks, Schachle (Blueger, Vanska), 17:01; 6. Fairbanks, Orysiuk (Mayhew, Johnston), 19:42. Penalties — Fairbanks 3 for 32:00; Kenai River 4 for 37:00.
Shots on goal — Fairbanks 13-15-5—33; Kenai River 2-6-4—12.
Goalies — Fairbanks, Benson (12 shots, 11 saves); Kenai River, Enright (33 shots, 27 saves).
Power plays — Fairbanks 2 for 6, Kenai River 0 for 2.
Brown Bears 4, Ice Dogs 2
Fairbanks 1 1 0 — 2
Kenai River 1 1 2 — 4
First period — 1. Fairbanks, Hite (Schaeffer, Wendt), 7:30; 2. Kenai River, Klekotka (Karlsson, Weeks), 15:43. Penalties — Fairbanks 1 for 2:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 3. Fairbanks, Hite (Wendt, Haider), 4:02; 4. Kenai River, Miknich (Garcia, Komuls), 15:33. Penalties — Fairbanks 4 for 19:00; Kenai River 2 for 15:00.
Third period — 5. Kenai River, Garcia (Guillemain, C. McDonald), pp, 8:20; 6. Kenai River, Guillemain (Posner, Garcia), 18:37. Penalties — Fairbanks 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal — Fairbanks 9-11-15—35; Kenai River 5-8-14—27.
Goalies — Fairbanks, Neaton (27 shots, 23 saves); Kenai River, Lake (35 shots, 33 saves).