Brown Bears to cease operations next year

The fate of the Kenai River Brown Bears was determined Sunday night in a board room in Detroit, and the news is not good for Alaskan hockey fans.

The announcement came Monday that the Brown Bears will cease operations following the current season in the North American Hockey League, a Tier-II junior league.

Kenai River general manager Nate Kiel attended the meeting, and said Monday that the decision to become inactive next season was a tough one, but the right one.

“While it was an extremely difficult decision, the consolation we take is that the program has been a great benefit to our community,” Kiel said. “On behalf of the organization, I’d like to thank our supporters, our sponsors and our fans. They created the Brown Bear nation.”

While the Brown Bears will take on an inactive status next season, Kiel declined to comment on what that means for the future beyond the 2017-18 season. Possibilities include the Bears selling their membership and making a move outside the state, like the former Alaska Avalanche of Wasilla did in 2012 when they relocated to Pennsylvania.

One thing for certain, however, is that the Brown Bears were no longer able to financially survive another year.

“It boils down to finances, and we were running in the red,” Kiel said. “Although this has been a passion of mine and others on the board, we have to be realistic in terms of what we can or can’t accomplish. At this time, things are upside down and it would be fiscally irresponsible to continue.”

Although there are a variety of factors that fueled the decision to shut down, the leading cause lies in the direction the league has taken.

A 10-year member of the NAHL, the Brown Bears organization was forced to come to terms with the changing landscape of the league. When Kenai River entered the league prior to the 2007-08 season, there were two other Alaskan teams in the Fairbanks Ice Dogs and the Alaska Avalanche of Wasilla. The Avalanche has since departed to Pennsylvania following the 2011-12 season, leaving the Brown Bears and Ice Dogs as the two lone Alaska programs at the Tier-II level of hockey.

During those early years, the Bears played in the NAHL South Division — a six-team division that featured three Alaskan squads, two other West Coast teams and a Canadian squad — which then morphed into the Western Division.

Within the last few years, however, the expanse of the NAHL began reaching the East Coast. In 2013, the league underwent another division realignment that placed the Brown Bears and Ice Dogs into the newly-created Midwest Division, a six-team division that includes franchises in Janesville and Coulee Region (Wisconsin), Minneapolis (Minnesota) and Springfield (Illinois), four programs on the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains.

With the change came the increase of road trips that significantly increased the team’s travel costs. Kiel said the dissolution of the Western Division created a new set of financial obstacles.

“We’ve worked hard over the years to raise money and succeed, but the loss of our divisional partners created a great financial burden,” Kiel said. “We had tremendous increases to travel. That’s been one of our biggest challenges.”

During the years of the Western Division, the farthest the Bears usually had to travel was Fresno, California.

This season’s schedule featured 21 games (out of 60 total) in markets that reside in the two farthest Eastern time zones in the country, including contests in Johnstown (Pennsylvania), Middletown (New Jersey) and Attleboro (Massachusetts).

To compound matters, Kenai River paid the “lion’s share of expenses” for opposing teams to travel to Soldotna, according to Kiel.

“The last couple years, expenses continued to grow while sponsorships fell off, which happens in a slow economy,” he said.

Kiel said the program will be considering all available options to bring back junior hockey to the peninsula, but with the current scene of the Western Division, it’s unlikely a return is coming in the near future.

The news of the Brown Bears’ future also comes just days after the Alaska Aces announced they will be shutting down operations in the ECHL, leaving many to wonder across the state where they will be getting their fill of professional hockey.

Ice Dogs general manager Rob Proffitt said that with the disappearance of the Aces and the Brown Bears, he feels most for the fan bases.

“It’s a sad day for Alaska hockey,” Proffitt said. “Last week with the Aces, now with the Brown Bears. I feel bad for the great supportive fans down there in Kenai and Soldotna. That’s first and foremost, they’re going to miss their hockey team.”

As the only Alaska squad in the NAHL, beginning next fall, Proffitt said the loss of the Bears will greatly affect Fairbanks and the financial burden put on the Ice Dogs, even while drawing home crowds of over 2,000 to the Big Dipper Arena on a regular basis.

“It’s a big shift financially, with obligations to our partners in the league and our travel agreement,” Proffitt said. “The simple math today is, instead of us and Kenai bringing 10 teams total up here (five each), it’ll be us bringing up 12 teams alone. It’ll also be another two or three weekends on the road.”

Kiel said he has gotten fundraising requests from fans and supporters who have pinged ideas off him on how to save the team.

“We’ve never stopped talking to our supporters, we went from having none, to many … look at the banners and signs in the Sports Center,” Kiel said. “I’ve had a couple people ask me, can we have a fundraiser?

“This problem is bigger than that.”

Founded by Barry Schoenley in 2007, the Brown Bears brought in a new fanbase to the Kenai and Soldotna area, and by making the Olympic-sized ice arena at the Sports Complex their home, the team was an instant fit.

Schoenley has since continued to serve over 10 years as director of the Kenai Peninsula Youth Foundation, which began in 2008. The KPYF began as an effort to attract local businesses to sponsor the team and to rally the community to also support it.

Kiel listed off numerous contributors and supporters of the Brown Bears over the years, right down to the volunteers that work at the games. Kiel said it takes at least 25 people to successfully work a game on any given night.

One of those supporters Kiel praised is Gwen Johnson, a billet coordinator since the team’s inception a decade ago. Johnson currently hosts two players.

Johnson said she was asked for a favor less than two weeks out from the beginning of the 2007-08 season, the inaugural campaign for the Bears. With 35 players on the way up to Alaska, Johnson was asked to fill in as billet coordinator after the original person decided to quit.

At the time, Johnson believed her role in the program would be brief.

“Heavens no,” she said when asked if she saw herself working the billet program for 10 years. “Our son was just an itty bitty guy at the time, maybe 7 or 8 years old, and we did this strictly as a favor.”

Johnson spearheaded the billet program, which she calls one of the best in the league, due to the involvement she and others have made.

“I asked, what would I want if my kid was going into someone else’s home?,” she said. “Everyone gets a welcome letter of what to expect, we email their parents pictures of Alaska and what’s happening … we’re keeping an eye out for them.”

Johnson said the Brown Bears typically host 23 players spread out among 17 to 20 families. Johnson works in the health care industry, and said the recent news was predictable.

“It’s the way our economy is right now,” Johnson said. “Budget wise, businesses are struggling, and it’s a trickle down effect. As much as I would love to see junior hockey, I don’t see it.

Johnson estimated that the Brown Bears took a $200,000 budget hit this season.

“We’re the most skeletal operation, we’re very mindful of things, have very few staff, and coaches get paid, but that’s about it,” she said.

Another longtime supporter that Kiel praised was Lisa Zulkanycz, who has worked closely with Kiel in helping to coordinate projects in an administrative role, donating time to help support projects.

In a text message sent Monday, Zulkanycz put into words her passion for the team, explaining how her son Zack, who played for the Bears, pleaded with his mother to house the players. Then age 14, Zack asked his mother to imagine if he played junior hockey, only to find out he had no place to live.

“I never knew I could love so many hockey players in one year,” she wrote. “To all the Kenai River Brown Bears out there.. I salute you and of course I love you. You brought heart and soul to our community. You reminded us of home, town, love and work. You welcomed the youngsters and loved our vets, you reminded us about loyalty, community and love for all (mankind).”

Kiel said over the 10-year period, the Brown Bears have taken on 30 founders, who have stepped up to pre-buy tickets over five-year periods, and 100 sponsors to support the team.

Kiel listed off a plethora of contributions the team has made over the years. Since the Bears’ inception in 2007, the organization has sent off over 50 players to NCAA teams spanning three divisions, and even more that have joined professional leagues in the US and Europe.

Notable players include Andrej Sustre, a forward on the 2008-09 Brown Bears that has since made it to the NHL, now playing for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Another player, goalie Kris Oldham, was drafted by Tampa Bay.

The Bears all-time leading scorer with 159 points is Brett Lubanski, who played three seasons for Kenai River from 2009 to 2012, and Alec Butcher was the NAHL scoring champion in 2013-14.

The Bears have also had over a dozen peninsula locals to play for the team, including Brad Duwe of Soldotna. Duwe is currently playing his last season with the University of Alaska Anchorage Seawolves. Former Bears player and Kenai Central graduate Zack Zulkanycz currently plays for the St. Clair Shores (Minnesota) Fighting Saints in the Federal Hockey League, and Soldotna’s Preston Weeks is currently a top college prospect at age 16.

Other accolades throughout the years include a Volunteer Award presented by the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce, as well as an academic achievement award presented to Dominic Granato by the NAHL. Granato played two seasons for Kenai River from 2010 to 2012.

“The Bears made citizenship and community service a hallmark of our goals,” Kiel said. “Our players have donated time and effort to other local non-profits.”

The Bears also assisted with many youth organizations over the years, including the Kenai Peninsula Hockey Association youth teams, and have had a strong presence within the past 10 years with local schools.

The last home game the Brown Bears are scheduled to play this year at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex is March 25 against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (Pennsylvania) Knights. Johnson said in the month leading up that date, she will likely be teary-eyed on many occasions as the season dwindles down.

“It’s the relationships that have been made with the players and their families,” Johnson said. “It’ll be lifelong friendships. We still keep in contact with some families.

“It’s been a gift.”

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