Bears ready to drop puck on 2017-18 season

Today at 7 a.m. ADT at the Schwan Super Rink in Blaine, Minnesota, the puck will drop on a 2017-18 Kenai River Brown Bears season that once looked like it would never happen.

In late February, the Brown Bears announced they would be inactive for this season due to financial difficulties. But a group of ardent fans, led by Steve Stuber, stepped up to raise $300,000 and the team was reactivated in mid-April.

So the Bears will begin a 60-game slate with four games at the North American Hockey League Showcase, starting today against the Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets. The Bears, who finished 12-46-2 last season, will be looking to return to the playoffs after a three-year absence.

“All the scouts are in the building for four games in four days and it’s a lot of fun,” said Kenai River first-year coach Josh Petrich.

It will be a much different environment from Friday and Saturday, when Kenai River lost to the Fairbanks Ice Dogs 3-2 and 5-1 in scrimmages at the Kenai Multi-Purpose Facility.

In Saturday’s loss, Petrich said his team was flat in the first two periods. The score was 1-1 after the first period, but Fairbanks scored four unanswered goals in the second.

“Saturday was the reason we play exhibition games,” Petrich said. “We don’t want that to happen at the Showcase.

“We had great crowds and fan support. We always want to win when we step on the ice in front of our fans, but there’s a lot of great lessons we can teach moving forward.”

The Brown Bears currently have 25 on their roster, with forward Dan Sandvig not counting as one of the 25 because he is on injured reserve with an illness. The team has to be down to 23 by Oct. 5.

The squad has nine returners from last season.

“The rookies made a lot of rookie mistakes, but the veterans made rookie mistakes as well,” Petrich said. “They have to be vets and take advantage of the 30 to 60 games they’ve played in the league.

“A handful did, and a handful didn’t.”

The Ice Dogs are a perennial contender for the Robertson Cup, so they were perfect to prepare for the Jets, also perennial contenders. Janesville lost in the Robertson Cup semifinals last season.

“They’re going to be a team that plays fast,” Petrich said. “They play a very similar style to Fairbanks.”

Petrich said the Bears have a lot of speed, so they are looking forward to the ice sheets in Blaine, which are bigger than the Multi-Purpose Facility. The coach said the team is built for the massive ice sheet at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex, and the sheets in Blaine are just a little bit smaller than those at the sports complex.

“I think the small rink in Kenai hindered us a bit,” Petrich said. “When we get to Blaine, our speed will show a little more and the young guys will have more room.”

The Bears will have 10 games in before the home opener Oct. 20 against the Shreveport (Louisiana) Mudbugs, but Petrich encouraged fans to tune in to the games on or to look for opportunities to attend watch parties at the Upper Deck in Kenai.

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