Nick Stevens of the Kenai River Brown Bears tries to squeeze by the check of Bohdan Panasenko of the Anchorage Wolverines on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Nick Stevens of the Kenai River Brown Bears tries to squeeze by the check of Bohdan Panasenko of the Anchorage Wolverines on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Brown Bears to open season at Showcase

The Kenai River Brown Bears open up their 16th season in the North American Hockey League today through Saturday at the NAHL Showcase at the Super Rink in Blaine, Minnesota.

The Bears play the Danbury (Connecticut) Hat Tricks today at 1:30 p.m. AKDT, the Amarillo (Texas) Wranglers on Thursday at 2 p.m. AKDT, the Philadelphia Rebels on Friday at 8:30 a.m. AKDT, and the Lone Star (Texas) Brahmas on Saturday at 6:30 a.m. AKDT.

Kenai River then stays on the road for eight more games before opening at home against the Fairbanks Ice Dogs on Oct. 14 at 7:30 p.m.

The Bears will be looking to rebound from a 14-41-3 regular season last year. Kenai River was the second worst team in the league, with the Hat Tricks ending up worse at 12-4-5-1.

In the 2020-21 season, Kenai River had its most successful campaign ever, winning in the first round of the playoffs and coming up just one win short of the Robertson Cup final four.

Last year, things got away from the Bears quickly. The team started 3-16-0-0, costing head coach Josh Dubinsky his job. Taylor Shaw took over as interim coach and led the Bears to an 11-25-3-2 mark the rest of the way.

As last season went on, Kenai River traded away most of its players in the last year of junior eligibility.

That meant, when Shaw was named head coach in April, there were 17 possible players Shaw could bring back for this season. Shaw said Tuesday that nine of the players were brought back.

“Our guys last year heard it a lot,” Shaw said. “You can’t continue to do the same thing and expect the results to change.”

Shaw said he increased the competition for roster spots by using the draft, tenders and free agents to compete with the returners for roster spots.

“Everybody was given a fair shot to make the team,” Shaw said. “I feel like we are in a much better spot than we were last year.”

The coach said two returning forwards of note are Anchorage’s Bryce Monrean and Ryan Finch. Monrean, who is committed to the University of Alaska Fairbanks, was Kenai River’s second leading scorer last year with 10 goals and 28 assists in 60 games. Finch was the third-leading scorer with 15 goals and 11 assists in 26 games.

“We’ll lean heavily on them offensively at the start of the season,” Shaw said.

Kenai’s Parker Lockwood also returns for a third season with the Bears. Lockwood had a goal and 10 assists in 54 games last season.

Shaw said the defense will be anchored by returner Caleb Huffman, another Anchorage skater. Huffman appeared in 55 games for the Bears last season and is entering his third season in the NAHL.

Goalie brings another familiar face in Wasilla’s Bryant Marks. Marks went 5-16-0-2 last season for the Bears, but steadily improved as the year went on and earned his first NAHL shutout April 9 against the Minnesota Magicians. That was Marks’ last start of the season.

Also minding the net for the Bears is Nils Wallstrom, a player the Bears tendered from Sweden.

Shaw said there’s a lot of excitement on the team right now. Everybody wants to improve on last year, while the newcomers are eager to make their mark on the league. The team has been practicing for two months and has yet to play a game.

The coach is trying to make the focus more specific.

“The only thing we can focus on is what is in front of us,” Shaw said. “What is in front of us is Danbury. We need to take care of that and not worry about anything else.”

Even as the Bears struggled last year, crowds of 1,000 fans or more were not unusual at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex. Shaw said fans can expect the same brand of hockey.

“It’s a super high-paced possession style of hockey,” Shaw said. “We don’t like to get thrown around.”

With both the Ice Dogs and Anchorage Wolverines, the Robertson Cup runner-up last season, in the league, Kenai River will spend massive chunks of the season in Alaska.

The Bears will be in-state from Oct. 14 to Dec. 10, Jan. 13 to 28, and Feb. 17 to the end of the regular season on April 15.

“A lot of what we do to recruit players on this team realizes that it does take a special person to want to be in Alaska,” Shaw said. “It’s different than the Lower 48. You have to exhibit the ability to fly on planes instead of the long bus rides and be more like a pro.

“The scenery, with the moose and caribou on the way to the rink, and the ocean and mountains, are all in addition to the junior hockey experience. They all come up to develop and advance in hockey, but this is a special place.”

Although the team starts with an extended stretch on the road, Shaw said the players love hearing from fans. The coach also mentioned a watch party for the season opener at The Upper Deck in Kenai.

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