The Kenai River Brown Bears open their 2018-19 campaign on the road tonight with a roster rich in experience and Alaskans.
The Bears drop the puck with the Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets at 4:05 p.m. with a roster that has 11 returners from last season and seven Alaskans.
“I’m excited that we have that many players who know what to expect,” said Kenai River head coach Josh Petrich, who begins his second year at the helm. “I’m excited about the other half we added as well.
“A good chunk are experienced veterans, but I’m also excited about what our first-year junior hockey players bring.”
The returners are co-captains Preston Weeks of Soldotna and Michael Spethmann. Assistant captains Alex Klekotka and Markuss Komuls also return.
Filling out the returners are Filip Karlsson, Sutton McDonald of Eagle River, Emils Ezitis, Zach Krajnik of Eagle River, Connor Scahill, Gavin Enright and Kevin Lake of Anchorage.
Even with all that experience returning, the Bears still lost five of their top six scorers from last season’s 18-31-1-3 effort. However, after that, the Bears return five of their next six leading scorers in an attempt to break a four-year playoff drought.
“All of that comes from the fact that they were so young last year, and the few older guys did really well,” Petrich said. “The real chunk and the real meat of our scoring last year came from the young guys.
“They are the guys that typically take a step forward in their second year. If all those guys get five to 10 more points, it’s going to be huge for the rest of the group.”
In addition to Weeks, McDonald, Krajnik and Lake, Wasilla’s Porter Schachle, Eagle River’s Connor Canterbury and Anchorage’s Ryan Reid are on the roster.
“We want to continue to promote the team as Alaskans’ first choice for junior hockey and try to move Alaskans along to the next level,” said Petrich, who saw Eagle River defenseman Cam McDonald move up to the United States Hockey League this season. “At the same time, we want to take care of the whole team.”
The Bears have a good mix of youth and experience on the roster. Eight of the players have 1998 birthdates and are in their last year of junior eligibility. Fourteen players have 1999 birthdates, while four were born in 2000.
Petrich said he doesn’t start out with a goal as to how experience and youth will mix on his roster, but he’s happy with the way it worked out.
“It’s the right mix to be successful not only this year, but in the future, too,” he said.
Kenai River will get a stern test right away in the Jets, one of the league’s top franchises. Last year, Janesville had the fifth best record in the league. The Jets had a 2-1 lead in a best-of-five series against the Fairbanks Ice Dogs, but couldn’t finish the series and failed to make the Robertson Cup playoffs for a second straight season.
Janesville had 12 Division I commitments last season, and this year goalies Garrett Nieto and Cole Brady already have Division I commitments.
“We’re going into the lion’s den,” Petrich said. “It’s going to be real tough, but we’re excited, too. We’ve got the type of guys who want to play the best to be the best. That’s what I love about being in our division.”
Petrich said the team has been getting plenty of support from the community on the road so far. The Bears don’t play at home until Oct. 5, but those wanting to watch the team can use hockeytv.com or go to watch parties at Firehouse BBQ in Soldotna or The Upper Deck in Kenai.