Soldotna’s Preston Weeks, 20, has been on the Kenai River Brown Bears for five straight seasons and the team has improved in every one of them.
As the Bears get set for their home opener against the Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets on Friday at 7:30 p.m. at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex, Weeks fully expects that trend to continue this year.
Weeks first joined the Bears for 11 games at the end of the 2015-16 season, when the team was bottoming out with a 4-51-5 record.
In 2016-17, the Bears moved to 12-46-2-0. In 2017-18, Weeks became captain and the record improved to 18-38-1-3. Weeks remained captain last year and Kenai River went 23-31-3-3, a record that left the Bears 12 points from the playoffs and extended the playoff drought to five years.
Serving as captain again this year, playing for his fourth Brown Bears head coach and closing in on the North American Hockey League record for games played, Weeks is uniquely positioned to assess the progress of Kenai River.
“I think everyone in that room is focused on the playoffs,” Weeks said outside the locker room after Wednesday’s practice. “Once we get there, I think we can take it further.”
At the Bears’ Main Camp this season, new head coach Kevin Murdock and associate coach Dan Bogdan asked the veteran what he thought of the talent assembled.
“I told them the talent was the best I’d ever seen,” Weeks said. “They took advantage of that by selecting really talented guys to be on the team.”
Thus far, that talent has been evident on the ice as the team has started 4-2-1-1 and is tied with the Fairbanks Ice Dogs for second place in the Midwest Division.
Weeks said when he first started playing for the organization, Kenai River was a place players did not want to play. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound defenseman said that stigma has been erased by the Bears nearly making the playoffs last season and some quality college commitments.
Eagle River’s Cam McDonald, who played for the Bears in 2017-18, is now a freshman at NCAA Division I powerhouse Providence. Kenai River already has three Division I commits on the roster, and one in particular shows the increasing attractiveness of playing in Kenai River.
Eagle River’s Zach Krajnik, 20, is committed to Division I University of Alaska Anchorage. Krajnik has played the last two seasons with the Bears and had a shot at making the Omaha (Nebraska) Lancers of the Tier I United States Hockey League, but he decided to come back to the Tier II NAHL.
Krajnik said the quality of life off the ice is important.
“It just didn’t feel right,” Krajnik said of Nebraska. “I wanted to be back with my friends here. This is home.
“These are the guys I want to go to war with.”
Brown Bears forward Porter Schachle, of Wasilla, also has committed to UAA.
During the offseason, seven of the 10 Western Collegiate Hockey Association members announced they were exploring a new league, a plan that does not include UAA, University of Alaska Fairbanks or Alabama Huntsville. In addition, budget cuts are being discussed for the University of Alaska system.
“They were open and kept us up-to-date on everything,” Krajnik said. “Just like here, I’d like to be a part of turning that program around in a few years.”
Krajnik and Theo Thrun are both tied for the team lead with nine points, while Logan Ritchie is next with six points. Those three have all stayed on the same line, something Krajnik said has helped immensely.
“We’ve been together for over a month so we’re able to build chemistry,” he said. “They’re great to play with. They both have a lot of speed and skill.”
While Ritchie is in his second year, Thrun, a second-round pick, is part of that new talent Weeks was talking about.
Michael Spinner, Robert McCollum, Max Helgeson and Laudon Poellinger are next on the points list with four, and all but Poellinger are newcomers.
Both Weeks and Krajnik said all the new talent allows the Bears to carry the puck through the neutral zone with more speed than ever before and make some plays, meaning the team doesn’t have to dump and chase the puck as much on the huge sports complex ice.
“That can wear you down pretty fast,” Weeks said.
Weeks said the plan is for the new style of play to make the Bears better at home. Last year, the squad was 10-14-2-2 at home, and 12-15-1-0 on the road.
“A lot of the teams in this division have fast, skilled guys and I can see how some of the other teams might do well on a big sheet of ice,” Murdock said.
That new talent extends to defense and goaltending. Weeks said last year the Bears avoided goals a lot of the time due to the incredible play of goalie Gavin Enright, who has since moved up to the Green Bay (Wisconsin) Gamblers of the USHL.
The Bears increased their defensive talent Sept. 29 by trading for Bryan Huggins of the Austin (Minnesota) Bruins. Huggins, 17, is already committed to Division I Lake Superior State University. Murdock said Huggins is a steady defenseman who became available when the Bruins got a pair of defensemen back from the USHL.
“He’s sees the ice and moves the puck well,” Murdock said. “For him, it’s all about getting more reps and getting more comfortable with the change of pace from U-16 to the NAHL.”
The Bears are coming off their two worst losses of the season by far, 8-2 and 5-0 pastings at the hands of the Chippewa (Wisconsin) Steel.
“I think people may have gotten too comfortable with how things were going,” Krajnik said. “They figured out that how we started the season is not just the way it’s going to be.”
Weeks said a good week of practice and finally setting up shop on the central Kenai Peninsula should help the team rebound. The captain pointed out that the newcomers on the team had never even been to the place on their sweaters until arriving this week.
“We’ve played two away weekends — the Magicians and Chippewa — and the fans were not like here,” Weeks said. “It was not the junior atmosphere it’s going to be this weekend.
“The new players really didn’t have any identity, but I think they’ll learn this weekend what this place is all about.”
The Jets, who also play the Bears on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 5 p.m., have five players committed to Division I programs and also had two players — goalie Grant Riley and defenseman Casey Roepke — achieve “C” rankings on the NHL Central Scouting list this week, meaning they are thought to be fourth-, fifth- or sixth-round possibilities.
The Jets are 3-5-0-0.
“They’re pretty young this year and they have some guys still getting adjusted to this level,” Murdock said. “They had last weekend off so they had more time for preparation to get things squared away for their next game.”