Coming off having the North American Hockey League’s worst record last season and with the league’s record this season, the effects of the turnaround orchestrated by Oliver David look to be far in the past as the Bears get set to battle the Fairbanks Ice Dogs this weekend.
Kenai River takes to the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex ice at 7:30 p.m. today and Saturday, and at 3 p.m. Sunday.
But Bears head coach Geoff Beauparlant said the organization still falls back on things learned during David’s tenure to get through these tough times.
“Oliver did a great job building the foundation and core values of what this organization stands for as far as the community, the collegiate piece and competing on the ice,” Beauparlant said.
In David’s first season in 2009-10, the Bears were 12-40-6. Yet they stuck with a plan and finished over .500 for the next four seasons — three under David, one under Beauparlant — until the difficulties of last season and this season.
Part of David’s plan in 2009-10 was getting talented young players plenty of experience playing with solid vets so they could come back stronger in years to come.
Beauparlant said the Bears could trade away draft picks and tenders to bring in vets and presumably more wins this season, but the plan instead is to stick with the young players.
“We believe in those guys and see their potential,” Beauparlant said. “That’s also the consensus around the community that I’ve heard in the last week and a half of talking to both board members and youth coaches.
“The biggest consensus is that the talent is there, but it’s taking time to learn to become junior players. It’s a difficult process to stick to, but it pays dividends.”
The Bears are currently 1-22-0, and have gone 20 games without a win or a point. Both are franchise highs.
The Ice Dogs are 17-4-2, good for second place in the Midwest Division, but also have lost three of their past four games. Fairbanks leads the Ravn Alaska Cup, the 16-game battle for junior hockey supremacy in Alaska, with a 7-0 mark.
Both the Bears and the Dogs had last weekend off. For the Bears, it allowed time to grow closer as a team and get out in the community.
The team all went to Beauparlant’s house for Thanksgiving, enjoying a big meal, football and card games.
“It allowed us to just kind of breathe, step back as a group and realize we’re all grateful to be in this league and be a part of this organization,” Beauparlant said. “We really spent a lot of time in the community, reminding the guys there are bigger pieces to all this than winning.
“I’d by lying if I said there wasn’t disappointment and frustration, but we’re not focusing on that as a group. The work ethic is great on the ice and the practices are uptempo.”
Although attendance has been down a bit during the current 14-game homestand, Beauparlant said he appreciates the community sticking with the team.
“The biggest thing with the community is to rally behind these guys,” Beauparlant said. “They’re working hard and they want to win.
“They’re an inexperienced, young group but we’re not going to blow this up. We’ve had a plan all along and it’s just taking a little longer than we’d hoped.”
The Bears have given up a league-high 126 goals this season, or 5.5 per game. But the squad did make several changes on the back end during the break.
Defenseman Jason Lem and forward Ezekial Estrada were released. Lem is having shoulder surgery to make sure he is ready for playing Division III hockey next season, while Estrada, just 17, will play in the NA3HL.
Joining the team are Oleg Khalemin, a 6-foot-4, 200-pound defenseman, and Jake Hartje, a 6-0, 172-pound defenseman.
Khalemin played in three games for the Bears this season, but left at the end of October to try out for the Kontinental Hockey League in Europe. The Bears figured he wasn’t coming back, but he recently called to say the long tryout didn’t work out.
Hartje comes in a trade from the Minnesota Wilderness for an asset. He has one more season of junior eligibility left after this season and already is committed to Division I Harvard.
“Jake was looking for an opportunity to play more, and they couldn’t give that to him,” Beauparlant said. “He was in and out of the lineup and just like any player, he wanted to find a situation where he could come in and contribute.”
Bears notes: Former Brown Bears player and Kenai Central product Zack Zulkanycz has joined the Kingsville (Ontario) Kings of the Greater Metro Junior A Hockey League. Zulkanycz had aged out of the NAHL, but was still eligible for the GMHL, a common destination for overaged players still interested in playing junior hockey. Zulkanycz retains his eligibility for college by playing in the GMHL. …
Friday will be Alyeska Tire Night, with a $500 gift certificate going to the winner of an on-ice tire pull. …
Saturday will be Stanley Ford and Stanley Chrysler nights, with Kenai Peninsula Hockey Association scrimmages at intermission and a puck-shooting contest between the Stanley Ford Moose and Stanley Chrysler Ram during another intermission. …
Sunday is the second Kenai Peninsula Youth Foundation Kids Day. Kids 12 and under get in for $5, while middle school and high school students get in for free. …
Kids will have an opportunity to sign up for the Kenai River Brown Bears Cub Club on Friday and Saturday, with Jumpin’ Junction bringing a bouncy house for both games. …
With many high school teams in town this weekend, Beauparlant said there is a team discount to Brown Bears games. More details can be found by calling the Bears office at 262-7825.