Kenai River Brown Bears forward Brandon Lajoie (arm raised) celebrates his first-period goal Friday, Jan. 17, 2020, against the Maine Nordiques at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai River Brown Bears forward Brandon Lajoie (arm raised) celebrates his first-period goal Friday, Jan. 17, 2020, against the Maine Nordiques at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Brown Bears to return home April 16

Nothing is for certain in the coronavirus pandemic, but the Kenai River Brown Bears are closer than ever to returning to the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.

Chris Hedlund, general manager of the North American Hockey League team, announced Monday the Bears would return to Soldotna for their last eight home games of the regular season, starting with 7:30 p.m. games April 16 and 17 against the Fairbanks Ice Dogs.

Originally, the Bears were supposed to come up in January. That has been delayed a number of times.

“Barring any major changes, like a change in travel protocols or a case outbreak, we’re very confident we’re coming back,” Hedlund said.

Underscoring the Bears’ commitment to come back was a similar announcement Monday from the Fairbanks Ice Dogs. The Bears and Ice Dogs, the only NAHL teams in Alaska, partner to bring opponents into the state.

Even though the Bears were on the league schedule to play in Soldotna as far back as January, Hedlund said the team never went through the process of lining up billet families, contacting sponsors and setting up sponsors for game days. That process has begun.

“There’s tons of excitement, from the staff to the players to the fans,” Hedlund said.

The GM added that it has been very rare for the Bears to play in front of crowds as big as 750 this season, so the players would love to get in front of that many home fans.

The path for the Bears to return became clearer Feb. 14, when Alaska lost its formal COVID-19 public health disaster declaration. That meant travelers from the Lower 48 no longer were required to show a negative COVID-19 test or quarantine for five days.

Then Feb. 24, the Soldotna City Council voted to loosen coronavirus mitigation protocols at the sports complex.

The number of spectators allowed at events was increased to 750 if the central peninsula’s average daily COVID-19 case rate remains at or below 10 cases per 100,000 over a 14-day period.

According to the COVID Dashboard of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, the central peninsula has had 42 cases in the last 14 days. If the central peninsula goes to 52 cases or more, the area would be at more than 10 cases per 100,000 over a 14-day period.

Also according to the dashboard, the central peninsula went below 10 cases per 100,000 over a 14-day period Jan. 29 and has not been above that level since.

In a press release, Nate Kiel, president of the Brown Bears, thanked Paul Whitney, Soldotna mayor, and the city council for making the return of the Bears possible.

“Parks and Recreation Director Andrew Carmichael and the entire administrative team have worked tirelessly in mitigating measures so that the team may return and safely play games in front of fans,” Kiel said in a released statement.

Hedlund also said time has been the friend of the Brown Bears. He said teams at all levels of junior hockey have been learning how to mitigate the risks of the coronavirus. Hedlund said there has not been an outbreak on an NAHL team since the new year.

In the coming days, the Bears will have announcements of how fans can purchase tickets and what mitigation policies will be in place at the sports complex.

The resolution from the Soldotna City Council requires that everyone in the building wear masks, including coaches, except for athletes and officials when on the ice, which includes penalty and team benches. People eating or drinking will not be required to wear masks.

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