Because the Kenai River Brown Bears have finished with the worst or second-worst record in the North American Hockey League the past four seasons, fans have become well-acquainted with the language of youth movement, growing pains and wait until next year.
Brown Bears head coach Josh Petrich says this time it is different.
As the Bears head into the offseason after compiling an 18-38-1-3 record that will stand as worst or second-worst in the league depending on how the Topeka (Kansas) RoadRunners finish up, Petrich said there are plenty of reasons for optimism.
“The word we use around here is culture,” said Petrich, who signed a multiyear deal after being hired before this season and will return next season. “I think the culture was very broken and shattered coming into this season and where we built the culture the last 60 games is pretty impressive.
“I think the players and fans agree with that. We instilled a style of play that is fast-paced, in-your-face, aggressive hockey.”
Exhibit A is how the Bears closed the season. The Fairbanks Ice Dogs finished with the league’s top record at 45-8-4-3, yet the Bears were able to close the season by taking seven of a possible eight points in four games against Fairbanks.
In all, Kenai River put two losses and three overtime losses on the Ice Dogs’ record in 12 games.
“I think last weekend was the first outlook of what Brown Bears fans can expect in the 2018-19 season,” Petrich said.
Of the 23 players on the roster at the end of the season, 20 are eligible to return.
During their struggles in recent years, the Bears have had young talent before. Croix Evingson, the 2016-17 NAHL Defenseman of the Year, was in Kenai River before winning the award for the Shreveport (Louisiana) Mudbugs. Wasilla’s Tanner Schachle, 15th in the league in scoring, played in Kenai River before blossoming in Fairbanks.
Petrich said part of creating a culture is creating a place where players want to return.
At exit interviews conducted early this week, Petrich said players were torn up about having to leave so soon. He said they talk about wanting to come back.
“I’ve done this a long time,” Petrich said. “You know when kids didn’t give a truthful answer. I don’t feel like many guys did that.”
Petrich has been a part of a building project in the NAHL before. He was an assistant with the Minnesota Wilderness when they started in the 2013-14 season and immediately went 37-14-9. The next season the Wilderness were 39-15-6 and won the Robertson Cup.
The coach said the Wilderness got lucky with a few players, but that it also helped being in hockey-mad Minnesota for procuring talent. Another advantage is starting a culture from scratch is easier than tearing down and rebuilding.
For advice on the Brown Bears culture, Petrich said, during his hiring process, he spent a lot of time talking to former Bears head coach Oliver David. David took over in 2009-10 as the Bears went 12-40-6, but then the team reeled off three straight seasons of 61 or more points.
“He said always be competitive, that this community respects a team that never quits,” Petrich said.
In their third-last game of the season, Kenai River came back from a 3-0 deficit in the third period in Fairbanks to win 4-3 in overtime.
Petrich said that game and a bump in attendance this season from 525 to 890 shows that David’s prescription of effort equaling fans is working.
The Bears were also able to make good on a goal this season of getting more Alaska skaters on the team. The year-end roster included seven, and all are eligible to return, including Soldotna High School product Preston Weeks, the captain of the Bears, and Kenai Central product Ross Hanson.
“When I interviewed for the job, I was careful about saying how many Alaska kids I wanted to have,” Petrich said. “I just wanted to have Alaska kids that could be every day guys.”
The youth that kept the Bears from so many victories this season is about to become an advantage, with 10 of the team’s 12 top scorers eligible to return.
One of those players is Filip Karlsson, who joined the team for the last 30 games and put up 25 points. Karlsson had six goals in the final three-game, season-closing series in Fairbanks and was named Midwest Division Star of the Week.
“The thing that was so impressive was the way he put up those six goals,” Petrich said. “Other than the one up for Play of the Week, most of them weren’t pretty.
“They were him hitting dirty areas and going to places you have to, to score goals.”
That young team was seasoned by a very tough schedule, as 25 of 60 games came against the top four teams in the league.
Petrich said the Ice Dogs were typical of those top-crust teams, with the top nine forwards, top four defensemen and a goalie all having been with the squad last season.
“For a roster that is as young and inexperienced as ours, our guys did admirably,” Petrich said. “They continued to work hard.”
Petrich said the end-of-season success will give him extra fuel as he works 8- to 10-hour days this offseason to improve the team.
He also learned a few things in his first year as head coach he can put to use.
“I think I learned how to handle the travel better,” he said. “I learned to have the schedule laid out a little better.
“We can’t have nine weeks of home games in a row at the beginning of the season, then end the season with a few home games, and be on the road 60 of 90 days toward the end.”
Petrich said in those tough times, billet families, sponsors and fans become more important. He said the players are grateful for the support.
“I still truly believe these are the best fans in the league,” Petrich said of Bears boosters, who in 11 seasons have not seen a playoff series win and have seen the team finish worst or second-worst in the league five times. “When I see what they’ve done for this small-community team, that’s a very big thing for us.”
The coach said the hardest part about the end of the season is three players run out of eligibility and won’t be able to reap the benefits of the culture they’ve sown.
Joey Rosa will go to school and put aside his hockey career. Gil Garcia will decided whether to play hockey in college or turn pro in Sweden. David Kaplan will pursue college hockey.
“They are going to be some of the first people I text when the Brown Bears clinch a playoff spot next year,” Petrich said. “The work they did in culture and leadership this year goes unrewarded, but a big thing for us is to make sure they know how much they are appreciated.”