Instead of arriving on the central Kenai Peninsula in late summer, as is the norm, the Kenai River Brown Bears did not touch down in Alaska until the height of autumn.
That’s only appropriate for a squad looking for a season of change.
On the plane that landed in Anchorage on Sunday, there were only five players who experienced any part of the league-worst 4-51-5 record the club constructed last season.
The team of Alaska newbies then got on a bus headed from Anchorage to Soldotna and was treated to some of the best scenery Alaska has to offer, all dappled in magnificent autumn hues signifying change.
Alex Dingeldein, a defenseman from a suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, likened the bus driver to a tour guide.
“The mountains were awesome, and the glacial water,” he said. “Everything was beautiful. It was even better than I expected.”
Dingeldein said the wildlife highlight was seeing white swans.
The reason for the late arrival of the Bears in Alaska is, again, change.
Instead of holding training camp in Soldotna, playing a series against Fairbanks, then traveling to Minnesota for the North American Hockey League Showcase, the Bears held training camp in Minnesota before going 0-3-1 at the Showcase.
Anchorage’s Evan Butcher, the only player in his third year on the team, said of the bus ride: “It’s nice to be home. Nothing beats Alaska.”
But even Butcher said staying in Minnesota made sense.
“We had some nice families that took us in,” he said. “It was a different start to the year, but it was a good change.
“Something different was needed.”
Butcher would know that better than anyone, because he has survived being on a team with the worst record in the league the last two years.
Not surprisingly, he wasn’t interested in living in the past during a midweek interview after practice.
This is Butcher’s last year of junior hockey, and he didn’t put in all the offseason work to talk about last year.
Butcher and Connor Inger both led the Bears with two goals at the Showcase.
“I’m going to try and be a leader the whole year,” Butcher said. “I want to show the guys, especially the rookies who haven’t been here before, an example of what they should be doing.”
Forwards Tanner Dufault of Minnesota and Jordan Hank of Nebraska also spent the season here last year, while forward Inger of Michigan and defenseman Preston Weeks of Soldotna were later additions.
Hank said last year only made the group stronger. With the coaching change at midseason to Jeff Worlton, the players could have decided to jump ship. Instead, they bought into a new program.
“It was a long year,” Hank said. “The guys who stayed the whole year dealt with adversity and showed a lot of character.
“They showed how much they liked being here for Kenai and the people who support us.”
Hank also said there is a different feel this season. He said the group has come together quickly and bought into Worlton’s program.
Like the players, Hank gave the fans credit for sticking it out.
“Everybody was asking what the town was like,” he said. “I can’t say enough about the people. They kept coming last year when it was tough to keep coming.”
The Bears are a young group, but Worlton is happy with the group he lured to Alaska, in part, by touting the area’s splendor. Players like Dingeldein, who Worlton said will be attractive to colleges due to his hockey ability, his grades and his ACT score of 28.
Dingeldein said he didn’t hesitate to sign a tender with the Bears.
“I looked at it as a chance to play hockey full-time and live in Alaska,” he said.
So far, Alaska has exceeded expectations.
“There’s actually more things to do than I thought there would be,” he said. “The people are really friendly and the billets are awesome.
“I live in an airplane hangar between Sterling and Soldotna. Nobody in my hometown lives in an airplane hangar.”
As the Brown Bears get set for their home opener tonight at 7:30 p.m. against the New Jersey Titans (3-2-1) at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex, Worlton is preaching patience with the young group he assembled.
He said Kenai River was competitive at the Showcase and made strides forward.
“The biggest thing we have to do now is stay patient and not panic, not bring in players upon new players,” Worlton said. “The wins are going to come, it’s just a matter of whether it is this weekend or the next weekend.”
The coach said the team still needs work in a lot of areas, but he continues to put things like competing, blocking shots and finishing checks at the top of the list of things the players must do.
Worlton said that’s why the example a player like Dufault sets is so important.
“He blocks shots and competes extremely hard every shift,” Worlton said. “He’s got a team-first attitude and wants to win.