As the Kenai River Brown Bears enter their eighth season today with a 7:30 p.m. tilt with the Fairbanks Ice Dogs at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex, the coaching staff has used the process of elimination to come up with the major goal for the campaign.
“We need to advance past the first-round hurdle we haven’t been able to overcome,” said head coach Geoff Beauparlant, who enters his second season at the helm. “As a staff, we’ve set that as a bare minimum.”
Beauparlant pointed out that there are not many other firsts for the franchise to achieve.
Put a player in the NHL? Check. Andrej Sustr of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Have a Brown Bears player be the MVP of the North American Hockey League? Alec Butcher pulled it off last season, the same season the Bears also went 4-0 at the NAHL Showcase for the first time.
Become a regular presence in the playoffs? The Bears have made the postseason the past six years, and since finishing at least 22 games under .500 in the franchise’s first three years, Kenai River has been above .500 for the past four.
Move players to college hockey and the Tier I United States Hockey League? Last season, three current or former Bears got Division I scholarships. Five Kenai River players from last year are with USHL clubs, and five more will play Division III hockey.
Win a playoff game? The Bears won their first playoff game in 2013, eventually losing in five games to the Ice Dogs. Kenai River also was a five-game victim of the Fairbanks march to the Roberston Cup title last season, losing the fifth game in overtime.
“We’ve pushed as far as we can push the last couple of years without winning a series,” Beauparlant said. “It’s time to take the next step.”
If the Bears are going to take that next step, they must do it with a team that features just five returners.
But the three returners interviewed for this story, Tyler Andrews, Matt Rudin and Zach Quinn, all said the team is deeper and more talented than last season.
Moving players on to the next level means less returners, but it also means Kenai River is more attractive to talent.
“This organization moves guys on and that’s good for incoming players, players on the team and future players on the team,” Quinn said. “This year we have more team talent than last year — a lot more depth.”
Kenai River also has been able to assemble depth by taking what could have been a weakness — being stationed in a small town in Alaska — and turning it into a strength.
Beauparlant said players have come to appreciate being able to focus on hockey, school and community service, and nothing else.
“A wise man once told me you can only do two things really well in your life,” he said. “When it comes time to choose, it’s hockey and school. If you add a third thing, like a social life, that can come back and bite you.”
The Bears had extended hot and cold snaps last season. Andrews, the second-year defenseman who will captain the team, said that streakiness was due to getting so much scoring from departed forwards Butcher, Albin Karlsson and Sebastian Fuchs and 19 percent of the goals from the defense.
“We have a lot more depth and that should control the ups and downs,” Andrews said.
In addition to returning Andrews, Quinn at goalie and 30-point forward Rudin, defensemen Ben Campbell and Gustav Berglund return for a second year.
“We have five young men that believe in the program and know how good they have it here,” Beauparlant said. “I think they have a passion for taking this program and getting it over the hurdle we spoke of earlier.”
The Bears also added veteran presences in West Valley product Logan Wendling, who has at least 16 points in each of his three seasons in the league, and Maurin Bouvet, a French player who had 25 points for the Corpus Christi (Texas) IceRays last season.
“We have a nice veteran presence, and we’re also expecting some of the young guys to step right in,” Beauparlant said.
The culture of the Bears has been a team that, in the past, didn’t have the most talent, but overcame that with hard work on the ice.
The veterans said the five returners will have no problem instilling that culture in the team.
“The vets did a very good job of teaching us the background of the organization last year,” Quinn said. “There will be a transition this year, and now it’s our turn to teach the rookies.”
A big part of being a Brown Bear is the unique rivalry with the Ice Dogs.
“It may be the best rivalry in the North American Hockey League,” Beauparlant said.
Once again, the two squads will face off 16 times this season for the Ravn Cup. The NAHL does not have a balanced division schedule, so the two squads play frequently to limit travel costs.
That means that if the Bears want to do anything, they must first have success against a team that has been to the Robertson Cup finals in three of the past four years, winning in 2011 and 2014. Kenai River has faced Fairbanks five times in the playoffs, and lost each series.
Enriching the rivalry, Campbell and Wendling have played for Fairbanks, while Beauparlant is a former assistant.
“You want to play the best and beat the best to become the best,” Beauparlant said. “Fairbanks has shown over time they are one of the league’s top teams.”
Beauparlant said the Brown Bears showed far too much respect for the Ice Dogs last season in losing the first seven games to their rival, then going 3-6 after that.
“We played Fairbanks 16 times last year, but we didn’t really compete with them until the playoffs,” Quinn said. “This year we have to compete with them right from the start.”
Fairbanks has nine returners from the championship squad, and Beauparlant said it is an excellent test of his side.
“We can only control what we’re working on preparing for, and the intensity level we bring Friday,” Beauparlant said. “I want to see us compete from the drop of the puck.”