After finishing with the worst record in the North American Hockey League the past two seasons, the Kenai River Brown Bears are trying a major change as they get set to open their 10th season today at the NAHL Showcase in Blaine, Minnesota.
The Bears will be employing a road billeting system this season, with that group of road billets based in Blaine.
The Showcase is today through Saturday and starts for the Bears with a 1 p.m. ADT game against the Minot (North Dakota) Minotauros.
In addition to the four Showcase games, Kenai River will play eight of the other games on its 60-game schedule in the Midwest.
Add in 28 games at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex, and seven games at the Fairbanks Ice Dogs, and suddenly 47 games will be played with the Bears not far from a billeting environment.
“The big picture during the year is, ‘How can we help these young men succeed?’ Kenai River head coach Jeff Worlton said this week via cellphone from Blaine. “The players will be able to stay at billet houses during the season and get home-cooked meals and that family feeling away from home.”
Worlton said his original idea was to have training camp in Breezy Point, Minnesota, where Worlton coached until taking over the Bears just past the midway point of last season.
But Minnesota scout Chris Hedlund took Worlton’s idea and ran with it, coming up with the idea of the Blaine billets and training camp in Blaine.
Worlton was quick to acknowledge the biggest downside to the plan — missing out on some time in the central Kenai Peninsula community.
For the past three seasons, the Bears have opened with a pair of games against the Ice Dogs at home before traveling to the Showcase.
This let the players participate in things like Industry Appreciation Day and a golf tournament.
“We’re really excited to get to Kenai,” Worlton said. “The players are excited to get up there, see the rink and meet the billets.
“We’re just trying to find a way to succeed by thinking outside of the box.”
The Bears open their home slate on Sept. 30 at 7:30 p.m. at the sports complex against the New Jersey Titans.
With the exception of a disciplinary incident after which Worlton removed two players from the team, the coach said preparations for the season have been going great in Blaine.
The Bears had two preseason games in Minnesota against the Austin (Minnesota) Bruins, winning the first 3-2 and losing the second 3-2 in overtime after Austin scored in the final minute to tie the game.
The Bears used that first preseason game to collect four big boxes of food and about 50 toys to donate to Grace Lutheran Church in Andover, Minnesota.
The Bruins are perennial playoff contenders, but Worlton cautioned about reading too much into those games.
“It’s the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “We have a chance to do something this year, but what it is I don’t know yet.
“Beating Austin and losing one in overtime is a good first step.”
The Bears have until the end of the month to cut their roster to 23. Currently, Evan Butcher of Anchorage is the leading scorer amongst returners with 11 goals and 15 assists last season. Other returners on the roster are Tanner Dufault, Jordan Hank, Connor Inger, Kyle Martin, Connor Nilson and Soldotna product Preston Weeks.
Worlton has not named a captain or assistant captains yet.
“The returners have done a good job,” Worlton said. “They bought in last year when it was hard to buy in.
“I’m excited to have them back.”
The Bears will have a young club, with just eight on the current roster in their final year of junior eligibility.
But Worlton said the characteristic that shapes the team is what he called the “Island of Misfit Toys.”
“We’ve got guys that have tasted success before, maybe at one time were one of the top goalies for their age, or guys that played in the USHL or are a little smaller,” Worlton said. “For whatever reason, they didn’t get the right looks, and now they’re hungry to prove people wrong.”
It’s that hunger to compete in every game that is very important to Worlton.
“Our goal this offseason was to find guys that are fast and quick, that compete and are hungry to prove everyone wrong,” he said.
Assistant coach Jed McGlasson rejoins the team, and Worlton has brought assistant Josh Dallmann onboard. Worlton has coached with Dallmann previously.
All talk aside, Worlton said one thing above all remains important.
“Winning is the best perfume for anything,” he said. “Our goal is to win, get these players to college and teach them how to be better young men.”