The plan of Kenai River Brown Bears head coach Jeff Worlton to turn around the organization is as simple to say as it is hard to do.
“Everything always ties into winning,” Worlton said via phone from his offseason home in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.
The Brown Bears have had a difficult time doing just that in the past two seasons.
After finishing with the worst record in the league at 16-42-2 in 2014-15, the team set the North American Hockey League record for losses with a 4-51-5 mark this season.
When the team started 2-31-1, head coach Geoff Beauparlant was fired and Worlton came in and went 2-20-4 the rest of the way with a roster that was quickly stripped down to only players that are eligible to return next season.
Postgame interviews with Worlton quickly revealed that anybody not knowing the results of that night’s game would quickly learn by bumping into Worlton and discerning his mood.
“I wear my emotions on my sleeve,” he said. “Winning is awesome, and when you lose you feel really bad.
“When you lose, you feel sick. When you win, it feels good, but never as bad as it feels to lose.”
Worlton said he is a product of the environment in which he grew up in Rochester, Minnesota.
His father instilled a competitive edge in him, and a handful of childhood friends that grew up to play Division I hockey and pro hockey only sharpened that edge.
Worlton himself played pro hockey, and that only enforced the need to win.
“Playing pro five years, you do your job,” he said. “If you don’t, they’ll find somebody else to do it.”
The Brown Bears, who have finished under .500 in five of their nine years of existence, have made the focus of their program college commitments, community service and competition on the ice.
Worlton sees none of that as being possible without winning.
“To get more college commitments, we’ve gotta win more games and have more talent on the roster,” he said.
He also said winning also attracts more interest in the community.
“You’ve got to walk that line and have a little bit of everything to equal success,” he said. “I can’t just be all community stuff, or all winning.
“Just like in work and personal life, you’ve got to find that balance.”
Worlton also strove to strike a balance between winning and preparing for next season in his final 26 games.
In exit interviews with the players, he said only one asked to be traded to be closer to home. All the others were open to a return.
“I got a chance to see what the team didn’t have, and I can make those roster changes in the spring and summer,” Worlton said.
While every player can return, Worlton said change is inevitable.
“Looking to improve the roster is the No. 1 goal,” he said. “Our scouting staff is hard at work.
“We’re going to draft and sign the few tenders we have left, and get, in our mind, more my-type players.”
The fan experience at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex lagged with all the losing.
There were games when no fish was thrown on the ice for the first goal. Lights and smoke for the introductions became a rarity. A once-rollicking beer section featured large sections of empty seats.
Naturally, Worlton has the solution to that.
“I love the community, I love the fans and I love the rink,” he said. “The community is starving for a winning hockey team.
“The community is waiting to get behind something, whatever it is, and hopefully it will be us when we win more games.”