When Anchorage’s Max Helgeson walked into the Kenai River Brown Bears main training camp in August as a free agent in the North American Hockey League, he carried a tendency of moving from team to team, and a desire to return to solid footing in Alaska.
Helgeson had stints in four hockey towns, ranging from Iowa to New York, and injuries hampered his production as he scrambled to find a career in the sport he loves.
“I was a suitcase there,” Helgeson said about his time playing hockey down south.
Now, with his 19th birthday fast approaching, Helgeson appears to have found a place to call home, and he’s brought the fire.
Helgeson is one of the numerous reasons the Brown Bears have experienced a resurgence in 2019. The versatile center has racked up 15 points during the team’s current 10-game win streak, including a big night last Saturday to cap a three-game weekend sweep over the rival Fairbanks Ice Dogs as a packed crowd of 1,859 Bears fans cheered on.
Helgeson scored twice in regulation against the Ice Dogs, then netted the only shootout goal to send the Bears to the three-game sweep over Fairbanks, his first experience in the Brown Bears-Ice Dogs rivalry.
“It’s a fun place to play,” Helgeson said about the fan base that filled the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex. “The environment’s awesome, the games get loud. It’s a fun place to play.”
Overall, Helgeson has tallied 21 points in 25 games this year for Kenai River, after netting four points in 11 games with Janesville and Jamestown.
Helgeson pointed to a two-game losing weekend to the Maine Nordiques in late October as the starting point to the current run. The fourth-best team in the NAHL East division, the Nordiques ran the Bears out of town with nine goals in two games, and Helgeson said that didn’t sit well with the Bears.
“We saw it in each other’s eyes,” he said. “We knew we weren’t going to lose another game or lose three in a row again.”
The team has since avoided defeat through 10 contests, and Helgeson has been a terror on the ice throughout.
“We moved him to center a few weeks ago because he’s got a good brain for the game,” explained Kenai River head coach Kevin Murdock. “He’s skilled enough to make moves.”
Helgeson grew up in Anchorage and followed University of Alaska Anchorage Seawolves hockey with his family. His parents Amy and Chad Helgeson are UAA fans, Max said, and that love for the hockey scene helped Max blossom into a young hockey star. He played in midget and bantam leagues with the Mat-Su Eagle U14 and the Anchorage North Stars U16 teams.
Helgeson spent one year at West Anchorage High School, playing his freshman season for the Eagles before making the decision to pursue higher competition by heading south to play junior hockey. Helgeson finished his freshman campaign with 43 points in 26 games.
From there, he worked his way onto the Cleveland Barons U16 squad in the Tier 1 Elite Hockey League, then spent a year with the Iowa Wild AAA U18 team, where he notched 32 points in 35 games.
Stints with the Janesville Jets and Jamestown Rebels of the NAHL followed, as well as brief appearances for the New Jersey Rockets of the National Collegiate Development Conference, a tuition-free junior hockey in the Northeast U.S. He also played on the Wisconsin Whalers of the NA3HL.
Because the NCDC is not affiliated with USA Hockey, Helgeson lost playing time with junior leagues and dropped into free agency. Plus, he suffered a concussion in Jamestown and missed five weeks of playing time.
“It was just a low point,” Helgeson said. “I’ve never experienced that before, and I never want to go through that again.”
As he worked to recover from his concussion and lack of playing time, Helgeson reshaped his mental attitude and approach to the game.
“It did look bad,” he said. “That’s why this year I kind of wanted to show what I got, all I can do, every single day in practice.”
That’s where the Brown Bears enter the picture. Murdock said at the team’s main camp in Blaine, Minnesota, this summer, Helgeson slowly separated himself from the other competition.
The Bears made three swooping roster cuts that whittled the field down to the 28 players that would play on opening night. The team held a default “All-Star” game to aid in the final decision.
“It was probably his best game of the weekend,” Murdock said. “He earned a spot in training camp on that.”
Helgeson said he was informed of the team’s decision to put him on the roster after the NAHL Showcase tournament in September.
“Yeah, confidence was definitely key in that,” he said. “Last year I struggled a lot and lost a lot of confidence, but this year, it’s been good getting that back. I’m playing more consistently and making plays out on the ice.”
The Alaska product has since found a consistent role as a linemate to New York’s Kyle Valiquette and Wisconsin’s Trey LaBarge.
Murdock said the Kenai River coaching staff debated Helgeson’s role on the team in the early weeks, pointing out that he appeared “one-dimensional” in his play as a contributor.
However, Murdock said the team realized that Helgeson was more versatile than he initially looked, which helped cement his spot.
“He’s just taken off,” Murdock said. “We knew what kind of player he was in midget hockey, but weren’t sure where his game translated at this level. He’s just getting better every day.”
Currently staying with billet family Pete and Heidi Iverson of Kenai, Helgeson said he’s comfortable in his role and atmosphere of winning with the 2019 Brown Bears, even as long as it took him.
“You’ve got to find your role,” he said. “Every time you move up, you’ve got to find that spot where you fit, and how you can improve your game and do something for your team.
“This year, I’ve finally figured it out and been able to play really good.”