The Kenai River Brown Bears organization has learned to only put players on the team that want to be on the Kenai Peninsula.
With the remote location, small population and cold, dark and snowy winters, not every player fits with the Brown Bears.
That’s why players like 18-year-old forward Joey Sardina, who grew up in the Dallas area, are such a key find.
Sardina isn’t dreading snow this winter, his second on the Kenai. In fact, he’s hoping there’s a lot more snow than last winter.
“Growing up without snow, I just want to see a lot of snow this winter,” Sardina said.
The forward, the billet son of Dawne and Ski Kitowski of Kenai, even reported to Alaska a few days early this summer to get in some fishing and hiking. On a trip with teammate Evan Butcher, he was able to land a silver salmon.
“They told me it was beginner’s luck,” Sardina said.
When Sardina was invited to Kenai River’s main camp before the 2014-15 season, he didn’t hesitate.
“It was totally different up here, but I was looking for a new experience because I’d been in Texas my whole life,” Sardina said. “I’m having a great time up here.
“The people are laid-back, and it’s a great community. They do a great job supporting us.”
Kenai River head coach Geoff Beauparlant said he’s glad a player like Sardina is enjoying the area.
“He’s grown into a guy that can produce and be a top-six forward,” the coach said. “He has a lot of leadership qualities and likes to be in the community.
“He’s the epitome of what we look for in a Brown Bear.”
Last season, Beauparlant said Sardina’s role was to be a fourth-line guy that concentrated on checking and defense. He played in 48 games for the Bears, notching five goals and two assists.
In the offseason, he gained 10 pounds of muscle and became more of a scoring threat. This season, Sardina already has two goals and six assists in 14 games.
Beauparlant said Sardina is one of the team’s top penalty killers, wins 60 to 65 percent of his faceoffs and does a great job protecting the puck.
“The biggest thing for him has been gaining strength so he can win the battles in the tougher areas, and he did a great job of that over the summer,” Beauparlant said. “We always see a jump in a second-year guy because he knows what to expect and how hard to work in the offseason.”
Sardina said a year of experience in the North American Hockey League is invaluable.
“It’s just the experience of another year under my belt,” he said. “Last year, there was a lot I didn’t know coming in. I didn’t know the pace of this league.
“This year, I knew what to expect and I have been able to adjust.”
While Texas isn’t a traditional hockey hotbed, it has started producing talent as the NHL has moved farther and farther south.
Sardina said the players are getting better and better out of Texas, and pointed out Seth Jones of Texas was the No. 4 pick in the NHL draft in 2013 and currently plays defenseman for the Nashville Predators.
Sardina, son of Joe and Kathy Sardina, was skating by the time he was 3. He said his dad, originally from Buffalo, New York, got him into the sport.
“Kids are now coming from everywhere,” Beauparlant said. “There’s worldwide competition to play junior hockey.
“It takes a special kid to play at our level. Joey definitely has that ‘it’ factor.”
It’s even tougher to play Division I hockey, which is Sardina’s next goal. He said he’s currently focused on team success, because individual success will follow. Sardina has one more season of junior eligibility.
“Although he’s got a good shot, his release needs to get quicker,” Beauparlant said. “He’s an intelligent player who needs to move the puck and resupport it.
“When he does those things, he’ll get better scoring opportunities. He’s definitely the type of hockey player that will garner Division I interest as the season progresses.”