Nervous times have gotten even tenser for Southcentral Alaska hockey fans.
Already hit with the news last week that the Alaska Aces of the ECHL have not made a decision about whether they will play beyond this season, Nate Kiel, general manager of the Kenai River Brown Bears, said Tuesday that an announcement on the future of the 10-year member of the North American Hockey League will come Sunday night or Monday morning, after Kiel has attended the NAHL Board of Governors meeting in Detroit.
“I will be attending the Board of Governors meeting this weekend on Sunday, and any announcement regarding the future of the Bears will be made after the conclusion of that meeting,” Kiel said.
After already having seen two previous junior teams fold in the Peninsula Hellfighters in 1998 and the Peninsula Chinooks in 2000, central peninsula hockey fans are used to being apprehensive this time of year.
Kiel said that alarm may have been raised higher by discussions between the coaching staff, led by head coach Jeff Worlton, and players about the future when the team was playing at the Springfield (Illinois) Jr. Blues on Friday and Saturday.
“I wasn’t there, but I don’t think it was an announcement to players,” Kiel said. “The players started asking questions and coach had a blunt discussion — hey, I don’t know what the future is.
“Coach doesn’t know that the Bears will or will not be here.”
The discussion led to alarm among some billet parents, so Kiel sent out an email addressed to players, staff, parents and billet parents.
“A few billet parents asked that question and I can’t answer their question,” Kiel said about the team’s future. “Later this month I’ll know more and make a statement regarding the future of the Bears at that time. The note alluded to that fact.”
Kiel said he understands the time, effort and money supporters of the Brown Bears have put into the organization over the past 10 years.
“I can see why there is apprehension among some of them,” Kiel said. “They care and they’re nervous.”
Kiel said the community has been supportive over the years, with over 100 businesses and 30 major sponsors or founders stepping forward with sponsorship.
“We face obstacles, including travel with the league for both ourselves and the visiting team,” Kiel said. “The fact that the economy is sluggish has played a part in those difficulties.”
The NAHL is different than when the Bears joined in 2007-08. The Bears then were part of a six-team South Division, but two of those teams were the Fairbanks Ice Dogs and the Alaska Avalanche of Wasilla. From the 2008-09 season to the 2012-13 season, Kenai River was in a West Division, that, until the Avalanche moved to Pennsylvania after the 2011-12 season, had three Alaska teams.
But starting in 2013-14, the Brown Bears were moved to the Midwest Division, further increasing travel costs. Meanwhile, instead of growing toward the Bears, the league has headed to the east in states like Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Massachusetts.
The Bears also have struggled on the ice lately, putting up the lowest point totals in the league the past two seasons to stop a run of six straight trips to the playoffs. This season, Kenai River has the second-lowest point total in the league.