The North American Hockey League Board of Governors voted unanimously Tuesday afternoon to reactivate the Kenai River Brown Bears for the 2017-18 season.
The Brown Bears, due to financial difficulties, had gone inactive for the upcoming season Feb. 26. But a group of ardent fans, led by Steve Stuber, stepped forward to raise $300,000 between March 22 and Saturday.
Once the group met its fundraising goal, the team announced Monday that it would request reactivation.
“It’s a testament to the hard work that Steve and others have put in and the desire of our community to keep the organization,” said Nate Kiel, who has been involved with the team for all 10 of its seasons and general manager for the last nine. “It’s a testament to the value of the organization to the community and all that it does.
“It really confirms what I’ve known all these years. It’s nice to see the community step up like this and the Board of Governors reacted to that.”
Stuber said that he merely served as the messenger and the community responded to that message. While giving special thanks to Alaska Airlines, Fred Braun, the Scotty Gomez Foundation and the Fairbanks Ice Dogs for stepping forward with important donations, he said he in no way wanted to undervalue how much every donation counted.
“This really is about community,” Stuber said. “This is about the lady that wrote that check for two season tickets even though she makes such little money.”
After his long-term involvement with the club, Kiel said he appreciates how hard it is to raise $300,000 in 25 days.
“I would have been skeptical for sure that they could achieve those goals in such a short period of time,” said Kiel, who in 2013 retired after 26 years of teaching in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. “That being said, and living here on the peninsula my whole life, I’m not surprised what the community can do when it puts its mind to it.”
Gwen Johnson echoed those comments about the community. Johnson has been the billet coordinator for all 10 seasons, though she will step down next season. She said that the Brown Bears program stands out in the league for the players having an amazing experience both in their billet homes and volunteering in the community.
The dizzying fundraising effort to save the Bears was just more of the same.
“It shows why the peninsula is a very special place,” Johnson said. “The generosity of this community continuously blows me away, not just in hockey but in many good causes.
“Good gravy. That just doesn’t happen in a lot of communities.”
Lisa Zulkanycz, who has been billeting players since the Bears’ second season and had a son, Zack, play for the Bears for three years, said she was more than thrilled when she learned the team would officially be back.
Zulkanycz said she got the feeling shortly after the Bears announced deactivation that the team wasn’t done yet.
“At first, my heart really hurt,” Zulkanycz said. “Then, after less than a week, I really started thinking we can do this. People in this community didn’t know what next winter would be like if we didn’t have a hockey team.”
For Zulkanycz, a lot of the value of the Bears boiled down to one image.
“The little guys that stand there with their hands out as the players come out of the tunnel,” she said. “So many moms said, ‘Will they be here next year?’
“That’s their goal. Someday those kids want to be a Brown Bear. That keeps us alive. Zack wanted to be a Brown Bear one day.”
Amidst all the celebration, there also was recognition that difficulties still remain.
“Now the work begins, that’s for sure,” Kiel said.
Kiel was quick to defend what the team has done in the past 10 seasons, which makes the organization the third-oldest team in the NAHL. The team has survived the end of the West Division and the dramatic increase in travel costs that meant, sent over 50 players to the collegiate ranks and spent a ton of time volunteering in the community.
Yet the club has had its struggles on the ice, failing to reach 20 wins in six of its 10 seasons and never winning a playoff series. The Bears had the second-worst record in the league this season, and had the worst record in the league the two seasons before that.
Kiel said part of the rebirth of the team is setting goals to be more competitive on the ice, such as reaching the playoffs and winning the season-series battle for the Ravn Cup with the Fairbanks Ice Dogs. Kenai River has not been in the playoffs since the 2013-14 season and has never won the Ravn Cup.
The general manager announced that the Brown Bears have fired head coach Jeff Worlton, who was 14-66-6 in a season and a half with the club. In January 2016, Worlton took over a club that had won seven times in its last 69 games.
“We’re going to go in a different direction, and we will be putting out a request for any interested applicants,” Kiel said, adding that he didn’t want to get into reasons for the firing.
Worlton, reached via cellphone Tuesday, said he got the news from Kiel on Monday and was shocked.
“When I agreed to come to the team, it was a two-year deal,” Worlton said. “I told anyone that was anybody that it would take two years to rebuild from where we were at when I came in, which was two wins.”
Assuming he had two years, Worlton said he assembled a young roster and all but five players can return next season. He said he also emphasized character and the players had over 500 hours of community service and no community or billet issues.
Worlton said the team is set up for success next season. With 13 losses having come by one goal, he thinks the extra experience will turn closes losses into close wins.
The coach said all of the hockey staff is leaving with him. The Brown Bears still have the NAHL rights to all of the players eligible to return.
“I’m proud of what we’ve done this year,” Worlton said. “From community service to on the ice to college commitments. I left the program better than I found it.”
Kiel said the increased support from the community will make it easier for the Bears to find success on the ice. Part of that is finances. He said that the number of fans holding season-ticket packages in the past has been near 100.
Stuber’s drive has boosted the number over 300, and Stuber has said he still intends to get to 500.
“It affords us the resources to dedicate a portion of the money to areas that are needed,” Kiel said. “Recruiting is one. We’ll be able to increase and improve our scouting network and do a lot of things to help us bring in blue-chip players to make a winning team.”
Kiel added that just as important as the money is the enthusiasm and volunteer support kicked up by the fundraising drive. The general manager has said that every game night must be a show for the community, and as interest in the team lagged in recent years, so did the show for the community.
“Every day, people are saying they want to get involved,” Kiel said. “We need an army of folks, whether it’s on the ice or off the ice, game nights, special events. We need people to step up and build the volunteer support base beyond what it is today.”
Stuber said he plans to remain involved with the Bears, but in the whirlwind of activity, nothing specific has been nailed down, yet.
“I look forward to enjoying the next several days and would like to thank all that showed up to support,” he said in a released statement. “As for the future, yes the work is just beginning. I look forward to contributing in any way I can.
“I have heard some wonderful ideas for re-energizing the program from the community and I am excited to bring those forward to the board.”
Kiel said the community didn’t realize what it had until it almost lost it.
“A great deal of credit goes to Steve and the group for putting forth the effort,” Kiel said. “Sometimes people don’t appreciate what they have until it’s gone and that’s true of the Bears. People began to say to me they don’t want this team to go away.”
Reach Jeff Helminiak at firstname.lastname@example.org.