The Kenai River Brown Bears are planning for the 2020-21 North American Hockey League season to be normal.
The planning for that season, however, has been anything but normal.
“The league is fully on board with playing out next season not any different than any other year,” Kenai River head coach Kevin Murdock said Saturday.
Last year at this time, Murdock was in the midst of spending constant time on the road evaluating players to get ready for the NAHL Draft in the first week of June.
This year, Murdock spends nearly all his time at his residence in Door County, Wisconsin, leaving only for trips to the store and for walks. There’s no hockey being played for him to evaluate.
Kenai River has made moves in the last week that show Murdock has been hard at work, though.
With associate head coach Dan Bogdan leaving the program, Kenai River announced the addition of two new assistant coaches Friday — Matt Thompson and Josh Dubinsky.
Thompson was born and raised in Anchorage and played for the Brown Bears in the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons, racking 30 goals and 36 assists in 109 games. The 2011-12 club has the franchise record for wins with 31.
After playing Division III hockey for State University of New York and picking up a degree in environmental studies, Thompson returned to Anchorage and coached hockey. In 2018-19, he led the 16U Tier II North Stars to a national title.
“He’s obviously very familiar with the program, which is huge,” Murdock said. “He was a part of teams that had two of the more successful seasons that the Brown Bears have had. He knows the grueling travel and what it takes to be successful, at least as a player.”
Dubinsky was born in Montreal, Quebec, and now lives in Chicago. He spent the past four seasons as an assistant at Ridley College in Ontario and that caught the attention of Murdock.
“That’s one of the better private hockey schools in Canada,” Murdock said. “He’s been a big part of bringing those guys success.”
The NAHL also held a Supplemental Draft on Tuesday. Due to the new coronavirus, the league changed its draft plan this season.
Rather than have one draft in the beginning of June, the Supplemental Draft was created for early May so teams would have three rounds to snap up players that really impressed last season.
The NAHL Entry Draft has now been scheduled for July 21, giving teams some time to get a look at players as rinks gradually start opening up across the country. But teams didn’t want to wait until late July to snap up top players on their list, players that would have options in other leagues. Hence, the Supplemental Draft.
The Bears took forward David Vieten in the first round, forward Sullivan Mack in the second round and forward Cole Wigestrand in the third round.
Murdock likes Vieten because he already has junior hockey experience, but also has a 2001 birthdate, so he has another two years to play junior hockey.
Mack, from Anchorage, has already committed to Division I Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Murdock said with uncertainty about the college season, the pick was made in case Mack needs a season of junior hockey.
Murdock tracked Wigestrand when Wigestrand was in high school and Murdock was associate head coach with the North Iowa Bulls in the 2018-19 season.
“He could be really good on the big rink,” Murdock said. “There’s some holes we needed to replace and this was a good opportunity to take him.”
The Bears currently have two predraft camps scheduled — July 10 to 12 at Fogerty Arena in Blaine, Minnesota, and July 14 to 16 at Centennial Sports Center in Circle Pines, Minnesota.
Murdock said a predraft camp had been scheduled for Anchorage, but that changed due to rink closures. He said it will be pretty hard to squeeze in a camp in Anchorage once rinks start opening up. As it is, there’s only a couple of days between the camps in Minnesota.
The coach said he’s working hard every day to get ready for the season and encouraging his players to do the same, because once rinks start opening, important camps and the start of the season will not be far behind.
“We’re just trying to be prepared as much as possible,” Murdock said. “Once things start opening up, things are going to start happening relatively quickly.”