How impressive has the start of the season been for Brown Bears captain and defenseman Tyler Andrews?
About as unimpressive as the beginning of the campaign for Andrews last season.
Andrews, 20, was recently named the Defenseman of the Month by the North American Hockey League.
The Anchorage native earned the honor by leading his team in scoring with nine points for the month, in addition to leading all defensemen in scoring over the same time frame.
Even though the Bears were outscored by seven, Andrews had an even plus-minus rating. All this while growing into the captain’s sweater placed on him by coach Geoff Beauparlant.
But Andrews’ debut as a rookie last year was not nearly as smooth.
In the first game, a 5-1 loss to eventual Robertson Cup champion Fairbanks, Andrews was minus-2.
The next night, en route to registering just one point in his first 12 games, he was minus-3 in a 5-4 loss to the Ice Dogs.
His debut was summed up by a play in the opener when he had the puck in the corner with nobody on him, yet suddenly feathered the puck in the center of the ice to a wide-open Fairbanks player for a goal.
“From that first game where he threw the puck in the middle of the ice against Fairbanks, he’s just come a long way,” Beauparlant said. “He’s really taken to the task of becoming a solid defenseman at our level.”
Even though the official stats have Andrews as minus-5 for that opening series, he remembers himself as a minus-9.
And he won’t forget stepping off the ice after that first game.
“That night I don’t think I said a word,” said Andrews, the billet son of Dan and Lisa Zulkanycz. “I was so mad at myself.
“The coaches told me not to worry because I was young and had potential. My teammates also helped me out and picked me up.”
The coaches and teammates were right. Andrews’ plus-minus would finish the regular season at minus-5, right where it was after the first two games.
The 6-foot-2, 185-pounder grew into a defenseman that was used against the opponent’s top line, but he also was able to rack up 16 points in 51 games.
Beauparlant, when he was an assistant with the Fairbanks Arctic Lions, had coached against Andrews in Midget hockey. He was not surprised by his emergence.
“When I was with the Arctic Lions, he used to be a pain in the butt,” Beauparlant said. “He was always a big kid, and he was always a good skater.
“He’s not a finesse guy, he’s deceptively fast, he’s defends extremely well and he’s fearless. That’s a scary combination for a defenseman.”
Andrews, son of Doug and Dawn Andrews, has had an inside look at pro hockey since he was 13, helping out with equipment for the Alaska Aces.
It’s a relationship that continues to this day. Andrews recently sent a broken skate to Aces equipment manager Mike Burkhead for repair.
Andrews went to high school at Dimond, where he played soccer and hockey. He tried out for the Brown Bears and Ice Dogs in his final two years of high school, but did not make the team.
Instead, he captained Dimond to the state hockey crown as a senior and played goalie for a soccer team that lost in the state semis.
He also saw his hockey future flash before his eyes in Midget hockey.
“That year of 18s was an eye-opener,” Andrews said. “I realized I had to showcase myself and pick it up if I wanted to play hockey competitively after that year.”
Andrews was drafted by the Brown Bears, and since then, with the exception of last season’s bumpy start, his arrow has been pointing up.
This summer, Andrews continued to improve by taking advantage of resources unique to Anchorage.
He got some tips from Louis Mass, the Aces’ strength and conditioning coach who, according to Andrews, works with players in levels as high as the NHL.
But Andrews said most of his work was on-ice, skating five or six times a week.
Three times a week he attended what is called the pro skate in Anchorage, where NHL veterans Scotty Gomez and Joey Crabb were regular attendees, as well as other pro and Division I players with ties to Anchorage.
“I talk to the guys on the (Brown Bears) and they don’t have a chance for that intense of a skate in the summer,” Andrews said. “They said it is more like shinny hockey.
“In our skate we play to win. We’re out there and we go pretty hard and it’s definitely helped my offensive game.”
The improvement of Andrews’ offensive game has been evident on the scoresheet.
He is quick to point out that seven points have been assists which obviously required the scoring skill of other guys, while his lone two goals have come due to screens from former Kenny Lake star Sam Carlson.
What doesn’t show up on the scoresheet is Andrews’ leadership.
“When I named him captain I had no doubt he would be a great leader for this group,” Beauparlant said. “It has caused him to take guys under his wing a bit more and helped him mature into his role.”
After Saturday’s 6-1 shellacking at the sticks of the Minot (North Dakota) Minotauros, Beauparlant called a captains’ meeting and, the next day, the captains called a players’ meeting.
“It’s nice to have a good relationship with the coaches and also know how the guys are feeling,” Andrews said. “We got beat pretty bad and we wanted it known that that can’t happen in our home barn.”
Beauparlant sees a Division I and possibly a pro future for Andrews.
The reason is Andrews’ versatility. He has been in front of the net, on the flank and at the point of the power play.
“He’s solid off the rush, he’s got a good stick, he’s intelligent with the puck and he defends extremely well in front of the net,” Beauparlant said. “College coaches like guys that can do it all, and he’s that guy.”
Andrews said his goal is a Division scholarship, but also to enjoy this season.
“I realize time is short,” Andrews said. “I talked to the 93s last year, and they told me how quick it went, and they had three or four years.
“I only have two years so I have to make the most of it.”