Former Kenai River Brown Bears forward Alec Butcher had just been named the North American Hockey League Most Valuable Player in 2014 when he summed up Kenai River’s relationship with the Fairbanks Ice Dogs in a way that is more true today than ever.
“I’m tired of being in the position of being the little brother,” he said.
The statement said two things at once. It talked about the burning desire of everyone in the Bears organization to get the better of Fairbanks, but it also talked about the kinship between the two clubs.
The rivalry will be renewed Friday and Saturday with 7:30 p.m. games at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex with the two teams closer than ever.
When the squads last took the ice together at the end of last season, it was no sure thing they would ever meet again.
The Bears had already declared dormancy for this season, but a mad-dash fan fundraising effort spearheaded by Steve Stuber kept the team alive.
One of the entities Stuber thanked for stepping up with a big donation late in the process to push the Bears over the top was the Ice Dogs.
Then after the season, the Bears parted ways with head coach Jeff Worlton and hired Josh Petrich.
Petrich, like Fairbanks head coach Trevor Stewart, is from Elk River, Minnesota.
“I’ve known their head coach for 20 years now,” Petrich said of Stewart, who has brought the Ice Dogs two of their three Robertson Cups.
Petrich said in the process of getting the Brown Bears job, he looked to the example Stewart and Fairbanks general manager Rob Proffitt have set.
“I’m not looking to duplicate the culture they’ve built,” Petrich said. “I want to be the Kenai River Brown Bears, but I want to instill a culture that’s similar here of excellence year in and year out.”
A venture announced this week by the two clubs further proves how close they are.
Two games between the Bears and Dogs originally scheduled for the sports complex for yesterday and Nov. 26 will instead be played March 23 in Palmer and March 24 in Anchorage.
The Ice Dogs and Brown Bears are the only two NAHL teams on the West Coast. The Alaska Aces, a professional team based in Anchorage, shut down after last season.
Both the Ice Dogs and Brown Bears know that putting teams in the largest population base in the state would drastically cut costs.
“I don’t think it’s any secret we’re trying to grow junior hockey to three, four, five teams in the state of Alaska,” Petrich said. “It would help with costs with us not having to leave the state.
“It would also give a higher level of hockey for local kids to strive for.”
Petrich also said junior hockey gives Alaska players an in-state route to college, as evidenced by the five Alaska players on Kenai River’s roster, in addition to an affiliate.
The series, which will have more detail at a later date, also gives Petrich a chance to return to some old stomping grounds. He served as an assistant for the NAHL’s Alaska Avalanche in Palmer before the team relocated after the 2011-12 season.
But all this doesn’t mean the Bears and Dogs will meet at center ice and sing kumbaya tonight and Saturday. There’s still the matter of Kenai River being sick and tired of taking a back seat to Fairbanks.
At a preseason scrimmage between the two teams at the Kenai Multi-Purpose Facility, a near melee broke out after the end of one game.
“The last couple of years, this rivalry has been very one-sided and this community and our group of guys want to change that,” Petrich said.
In 10 seasons of playing the Ice Dogs, the Bears have a 37-117-4-3 record. Fairbanks has won each of the five playoff series between the two clubs.
The Ice Dogs also own five Ravn Cups — awarded to the team with the best record in the seasonlong series — while the Bears have none. Even before the Ravn Cup, Kenai River had never won a season series against Fairbanks.
The Ice Dogs are 8-4-0-2, tied for second in the Midwest Division, while the Bears, at 6-8-1-0, are in fifth in the Midwest.
Fairbanks is tied for third in the league in goals allowed and kills penalties at 90.5 percent, tops in the league.
“It’s going to be a long, grueling weekend,” Petrich said. “We have to take our opportunities when we get them.”
The Bears have scored the most power-play goals in the league and are also tied for second in the league in goals scored. Luke Radetic is tied for sixth in the league with 18 points, while Gil Garcia leads the league with 11 goals.
Adding more importance to the weekend is that it is Military Appreciation Weekend. Petrich said the Army has been instrumental in helping set up the weekend.
“It’s a cause near and dear to me because I’ve had family members serve in the military, although it’s something I didn’t do,” Petrich said. “I am very conscious of what they’re doing every day to give us the freedoms we enjoy.”
Petrich had a veteran address the team at a breakfast this week, and will have another veteran come in after the game-day skate today.
Special jerseys will be auctioned off today and Saturday, and all current and past military, as well as high school seniors, get in for free.
“It’s a little bit of an eye opener for our guys, who are so focused on securing a college scholarship,” Petrich said. “They realize other people took a different path and were serving their country at 18.”