Even in a scrimmage, it didn’t take the North American Hockey League’s longest running rivalry much time to reignite.
Within a few minutes of the puck drop Friday at the Kenai Multi-Purpose Facility, players were chirping at each other.
By 3 minutes, 43 seconds, left in the game, with Fairbanks clinging to a 3-2 lead which would eventually be the final score, Tyler Deweese of the Ice Dogs and Michael Spethmann of the Brown Bears were dropping the gloves.
Then a wild end to the game ensued, with both teams delivering hard checks and the sizable crowd getting more amped up with each rattle of the boards.
At the final horn, William Casey of the Brown Bears got a butting penalty, resulting in a scrum between the two sides which had a few fans rushing the boards by the time it was broken up.
“The intensity is always going to be there,” Kenai River assistant captain Carter Wade said after the game. “It’s Fairbanks.”
Entering his seventh season, Ice Dogs head coach Trevor Stewart said all the new players on the ice had a lot to figure out about the NAHL, and the end of the game showed that.
“It’s good for players on both teams to figure out where that line is — to go up to it and not cross it,” Stewart said. “Better now in the preseason than losing a player for a few games during the season.
“It’s all about competition. Kenai River is going to be a good team this year.”
Of the 22 players dressed for the Brown Bears, Kenai River head coach Josh Petrich said 14 were playing in their first NAHL games. Petrich said many mistakes were made, but what he liked was how players responded to those mistakes, with a prime example being Eagle River’s Casey and his butting penalty.
Saturday, Petrich went with an ever more inexperienced lineup and the Bears lost 5-1.
“The young guys are going to make some mistakes and face adversity,” Petrich said. “The question is what they are going to do about it.
“The kid (Casey) already came up and apologized. He felt bad about what he did.”
The Ice Dogs dressed 11 players who were on the roster of the team that advanced to the Midwest Division finals last season. Petrich said his younger players came out with some nerves, allowing Fairbanks to start fast.
But Bears goalie Gavin Enright started fast as well.
“It was Gavin’s first game and he’s a senior in high school,” Petrich said. “He stayed calm in that first period.”
The lone strike in the first period came from Caleb Hite of Fairbanks on an assist from Samuel Ruffin.
Petrich said the Brown Bears had four great scoring chances in the first period as well, and credited Fairbanks goalie Josh Benson with keeping it 1-0.
In the second period, the Ice Dogs started by keeping the puck mostly in the Brown Bears zone, but that all changed with 13:32 left, when Sacha Guillemain got the puck to Gil Garcia, who was stopped by a sprawling save from Benson. But Alex Klekotka also charged the net and tapped in the rebound.
“That’s a culture thing for us — crashing the net,” Petrich said.
Fairbanks came back and took the lead with 8:39 left in the second when Connor Chilton scored on a two-on-one on assists from Anchorage skater Daniel Haider and Nolan Schaeffer.
Like the first goal, the second goal was set up by a poor line change. Petrich said that’s the reason preseason games are played.
But the Brown Bears came right back to knot it at 2 with 6:52 left in the second when Eagle River’s Sutton McDonald, assisted by Wade, rifled a shot past Benson. Petrich said Wade’s charging the net was a big factor in the goal.
“I think it’s coming together good,” Wade said. “It was our first game together as a team and we went hard, didn’t stop and showed a lot of heart.”
Alaska skaters continued to play a huge role in the outcome when Wasilla’s Tanner Schachle, a former Brown Bears player, got the game-winner for the Ice Dogs with 5:50 left in the third. Assists by Lake Superior State commit Robert Blueger and Nolan Schaeffer found Schachle all alone on the weak side.
Stewart said he is excited about the line of Schachle, Blueger and Erkka Vanska.
“All those guys have the potential to have good seasons,” Stewart said. “It just depends on how much work they are going to put into it.”
The frantic finish to the game was egged on by the fans. Petrich, who had the shots unofficially at 28-20 for Fairbanks, said the fans were great Friday, and Wade said the crowd brought regular-season intensity to the game.