When he was hired in mid-May, Kenai River Brown Bears head coach Josh Petrich said the near-death experience of the North American Hockey League franchise at the end of last season would turn into a big asset.
There were signs during the NAHL Draft on Tuesday that Petrich may have been right.
The Brown Bears drafted 10 players on top of the four players already signed to tenders. Because each team can only protect 31 players at this point, that means the Bears have 17 protected players from last season.
With five players aging off of last year’s 23-man roster, plus another attending college early, that means the 17 players didn’t want to jump ship after a 12-46-2-0 campaign.
“They understand the opportunity and they understand the community and I can’t focus enough on that,” Petrich said. “Hockeywise, it may have been rough, but they all said my billet family is the best, my billet family is family, I love the community and I’m excited to be back there.”
Petrich said the draft picks also were excited to be drafted by an organization that has the backing of the community.
“The 14 guys we added are all excited about the community and the wildlife and everything Alaska has to offer,” Petrich said.
The coach conducted the draft from Minnesota, but even there he could feel the excitement he witnessed during a trip to the Kenai Peninsula over Memorial Day weekend. The evidence came during an interview for Hockey TV during the draft.
“During the interview, I was getting texts from fans telling me, ‘Way to represent the Brown Bears,’” Petrich said. “My wife (Desi) and I are so excited to be a part of the community.”
Even though the large group of players from last season are protected, Petrich said he has been clear there are no guarantees.
“I’ve told the guys what I expect, and what to expect,” Petrich said. “Now it’s up to those 31 guys plus the free agents we recruit to figure out who is going to be the 23 to 27 players we bring to the peninsula in mid-August.”
Petrich has watched games from last season and sees a team that took a number of one-goal losses or one-goal losses plus an empty-netter.
“I think there is a lot of talent to play the style I want, which is fast, puck possession and creative yet also defensively sound,” Petrich said. “I think I’ve talked to every kid two or three times and I’m excited what they bring. I’m also excited about the 14 guys we added.”
The drafted players all have 1998 or 1999 birthdates, meaning they are eligible for two or three years in the league. Petrich said they were drafted based on their compete level and skating speed.
“The biggest compliment as a coach is when they say your team is hard to play against,” Petrich said. “To do that, you have to have guys that want it more than the other team. That’s a big focus we look for.”
The Bears currently have three Alaska players protected, including Soldotna’s Preston Weeks, a defenseman who spent last season with the team.
Kenai River has also tendered Daniel Ramsey, a 1999 forward from Anchorage. Petrich said Ramsey skates well, shoots the puck off the pass, competes and plays a physical game at times.
The Bears also drafted Eagle River forward Sutton McDonald in the seventh round. The coach said McDonald has a big body and can make plays around the net.
Other picks for the Bears are forward Nic Griebenow of Plano, Texas, in the second round; forward Daniel Sandvig of Burnsville, Minnesota, in the second round; defenseman Matthew Boren of Devils Lake, North Dakota, in the third round; forward Alex Lycett of Trenton, Michigan, in the fourth round; defenseman Lucas Byhlin of Sweden in the fifth round; forward Brad Viola of Massapequa, New York, in the fifth round; forward Jacob Steen in the sixth round; defenseman Cameron Bickford of Mansfield, Texas, in the sixth round; and forward Jack Gorniak of Salem, Michigan, in the eighth round.