Just 3 1/2 months ago, Kevin Murdock resigned as head coach of the Kenai River Brown Bears, beginning a whirlwind of activity in the career of then-assistant coach Josh Dubinsky.
Dubinsky, as interim head coach, went 1-3 to finish the regular season, but on May 29 he led the Bears to a 4-3 victory over the Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets to give Kenai River a 3-1 opening-round playoff series victory. The series triumph was the first in Bears history for the team that began play in the North American Hockey League in the 2007-08 season.
Kenai River then went all the way to Game 5 of the Midwest Division finals before losing 3-2 to the Minnesota Magicians on June 13, coming up just one victory short of the Robertson Cup Finals.
Just two days later, Kenai River named Keenan Kelly as head coach, promoting Dubinsky to associate head coach.
Then Aug. 6, Kenai River announced Dubinksy had been named head coach after Kelly resigned to take a job with the ECHL’s Idaho Steelheads in Boise. Dubinsky said Kelly is from Boise and taking the job in pro hockey also allows Kelly to spend time with his mother, who has stage IV cancer.
“It’s been a pretty crazy last three months, especially the last three or four weeks,” Dubinsky said.
Dubinsky, originally from Montreal, Quebec, but a resident of Chicago since the age of 7, had been an assistant coach for four seasons at Ridley College in St. Catharines, Ontario, before coming to the Bears before the 2020-21 season. Ridley has one of the best prep school hockey programs in Canada.
The opportunity to learn under Murdock, who has the best winning percentage in Kenai River history, and then Kelly, who was with Kenai River for all three predraft camps and then the draft, also helped groom Dubinsky for this moment.
“I would like to think a lot of it has to do with the success I had at the end of last season after everything that happened with Kevin,” Dubinsky said. “I understand the rationale behind hiring Keenan and I was on board with that.
“All this shook out late in the game and the decision was tough, but they decided it was best to give it to me.”
Dubinsky also said he will lean on Chris Hedlund, general manager, and Nate Kiel, president. The head coach also has struck up a quick relationship with new assistant Taylor Shaw. The two met for the first time this weekend at Main Camp.
“I got to work with him a few days at it seems like things will work out well,” Dubinsky said.
The Brown Bears brain trust is tasked with building on last season’s unprecedented success despite returning just nine players.
In addition to losing all the players who aged out of junior hockey or moved on to college, the Bears also lost Morgan Winters, Tyler Pfister, Lucas Wahlin and Theo Thrun to the United States Hockey League. The USHL is the only Tier I junior league in the United States, while the NAHL is the only Tier II league in the U.S.
The Bears return Brendan Hill, Carter Green, Cam Blanton and Drew Jeffers on defense, and Jake Veri, Parker Lockwood, Gramm McCormack, Cole Dubicki and David Vieten on offense. With Brandon Lajoie gone due to a trade, the Bears have lost their top 10 scorers from a year ago.
While that’s not exactly a recipe for success, Dubinsky said many teams may be in a similar boat due to some peculiar situations caused by the pandemic. Many NCAA programs didn’t take many new players last season, while some teams in both the USHL and NAHL went dormant, meaning NAHL rosters were stocked with talent.
“The league was really, really good last year,” Dubinsky said. “Losing so many players puts us in a tough spot, but I’d be willing to bet there’s a lot of other teams in similar situations.”
Dubinsky also is feeling better after Main Camp.
“Main Camp went well,” he said. “I was excited to see some of the tenders and draft picks in person. Some were a pleasant surprise, in my opinion.”
From Murdock to Kelly to Dubinsky, a common thread runs through the talent.
“Teams get built around the rink they play at,” Dubinsky said. “We play on a big sheet of ice in Soldotna so we built a team of guys who can really wheel. We might not be the biggest, but our goal is to be the fastest.”
Dubinsky, Hill and Lockwood will be at Bird Homestead Golf Course on Saturday for the Kenai River Brown Bears Fall Classic.
The team will then convene training camp in Breezy Point, Minnesota, on Aug. 29. Dubinsky expects the numbers of players in camp to grow to 33 or 34, then be cut down to 23 by the time the team flies up to Alaska at the end of September.
Training camp will pretty much run through Sept. 10, when the Bears open their season at the Chippewa (Wisconsin) Steel. The home opener is Oct. 21 against the Steel.
“It was ridiculously short,” Dubinsky said of the offseason. “It’s crazy to think we played our last playoff game on June 13 and we play our first regular season game on Sept. 10.”
Another odd thing about the pandemic will be just how unfamiliar with Alaska the team will be to start the season. The team does not have any third-year players or coaches, so nobody has spent close to a full season in Alaska. The pandemic limited the Bears to playing just eight games at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex last season.
With the Anchorage Wolverines joining the Bears and Fairbanks Ice Dogs in the league this season, 24 of Kenai River’s 60 regular season games will be against in-state rivals. Also, 40 of the team’s 60 games will take place in Alaska.
“We’re definitely looking forward to it,” Dubinsky said. “The cool thing from that standpoint is we play in Fairbanks the first weekend of October, then we have two weeks off before we play our first home games. It will be a great time for the guys to get acclimated, do some sightseeing, and get out in the community and meet fans and sponsors.”