The Kenai River Brown Bears will turn to home ice advantage to spark their season, starting tonight with a 7 p.m. game against the Chippewa (Wisconsin) Steel at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.
The Bears come into the home opener at 1-9-0-0 in North American Hockey League play. Two of those losses came to the Steel, who are 6-7-0-0. Kenai River has not played since losing to the Fairbanks Ice Dogs on Oct. 2. The Bears also play the Steel on Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
“The two-week break came at the right time to reset things a bit,” Bears head coach Josh Dubinsky said.
The head coach also said the two-week period was perfect for getting used to the large ice sheet at the sports complex and for getting acclimated to the area.
Last season, the Bears only played eight games at the sports complex due to the coronavirus pandemic. With the limited number of returners on the team, Dubinsky said more than half of the team is up in Alaska for the first time.
“Everyone likes it,” Dubinsky said. “They’ve been able to get used to the ice sheet by playing and practicing on it.
“They’ve also gotten a chance to enjoy stuff away from the rink.”
Dubinsky said the weather has been nice enough that some of the players have gotten to go fishing, while the team did a couple of bonfires down at the beach. The team also attended a couple of community events.
“Anybody I’ve talked to is excited we’re back for what everybody is hoping will be a normal season,” Dubinsky said.
There are no capacity limits at the sports complex due to the coronavirus, but with the central Kenai Peninsula still at a high level of COVID-19 transmission, the City of Soldotna is requiring masks in all city-owned buildings, including the sports complex. The resolution implementing this policy was enacted by the Soldotna City Council on Aug. 11 by a vote of 5-1.
Athletes, coaches and officials participating in games or practices at the sports complex are exempt from the mask requirement while on the ice, team bench or penalty box, but all other members of the public must wear masks.
“We’ll have additional signage and free masks to hand out to make it easy for folks to comply, but at the end of the day what we’re hoping for is voluntary compliance,” Soldotna City Manager Stephanie Queen said. “I don’t think there will be a strong, muscular enforcement. We just ask that people be respectful and wear a mask if they can because the policy is still in effect.”
Queen said fans also can pull down masks to eat and drink, similar to the policy in effect on airplanes.
The Bears have yet to fully click on offense or defense this season.
Kenai River has scored the fewest goals in the league, with 16 in 10 games. Returners David Vieten, Gramm McCormack and Cole Dubicki lead the way with seven, six and five points, respectively.
Dubinsky said it’s time for the rookies to contribute more.
“There was always going to be an adjustment period for those guys,” the coach said. “Now that they are all seven, eight or 10 games into their junior hockey career, they’ve made adjustments and it’s up to them to take it from there.”
Only two teams in the league have allowed more goals than the Bears.
“In terms of defensemen, I like where we’re at,” Dubinsky said. “We have eight solid defensemen here. Defense itself is a team stat, and not indicative of the defensemen.”
The coach said team defensive concepts have been a focus in practice heading into the home opener.
The Bears picked up forwards Hunter Newhouse and Nick Stevens in hopes of bolstering the offense. Newhouse came in a trade with the New Jersey Titans for Jake Veri. Stevens was picked up as a free agent.
Kenai River opened its season with 5-1 and 4-0 losses to the Steel.
“They’re just a good, solid hockey team,” Dubinsky said. “They’re well-coached and they compete extremely hard. We have to stick to our game plan.
“We’ve talked before that this team is built for our sheet of ice. We have to use that to our advantage.”