This year’s prep hockey season will see a welcome change in venue for the Kenai Kardinals, a change in coach for the Homer Mariners, and, area hockey supporters hope, a change in fortunes for all Kenai Peninsula teams.
After a season that saw Kenai Central, Soldotna and Homer slog through a 1-17 record against the teams from the Matanuska-Susitna valleys, it appears to be another season of chasing.
The only peninsula contingent to beat any of the Valley teams last year was Soldotna, which defeated Colony 6-2 in the regular season, then toppled the top-seeded Palmer Moose 3-1 in the Northern Lights Conference tournament semifinals.
“I’d love to say we’re in the mix with them,” said SoHi coach Derek Urban, pointing out that Palmer graduated a large senior class. “We expect them to come back to the pack a little bit. For us, it’s about trying to get in the mix with them.”
Kenai coach Michael Tilly oversaw a 2015 Kards team that went 1-9-0 in region play and lost 8-2 to Wasilla in the tournament. Tilly said his team’s approach to the season is focused on a singular objective — win that night’s game.
“I put a lot of effort into my own team, and when the puck drops, you work on winning that game,” Tilly said. “I don’t look any farther north than Sterling.”
This year, the puck will be dropping on Kenai Central’s home ice, which is just a couple hundred feet from the high school in Kenai. The Kards will be moving from the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex, which they have shared with the Stars for years, and will be playing all home games this season at the Kenai Multipurpose Rink, a quasi-outdoor rink.
Tilly said the change was made in part to help foster the home ice feel and advantage. Kenai will be playing at least five conference home games at the multipurpose venue this year, with possible additional nonconference tilts as well.
“I think there’s a bit of an identity crisis when kids have to go across town and play on someone else’s rink,” he said. “It’s an old school rink, kind of like Big Lake (Wasilla), which is a naturally frozen rink, so it’s cold.”
The Kards will have to wait to host their first game on their true home ice, as Colony comes to town for a Jan. 12 clash.
The season began Thursday with two games at the Peninsula Ice Challenge in Soldotna, and continues today with a 5:30 p.m. matchup between SoHi and Homer, followed by an 8 p.m. meeting between Kenai and Houston.
Saturday gets rolling with a 1:15 p.m. game between Homer and Houston and ends with Kenai and SoHi at 3:45 p.m.
In his third year as head coach of the Stars, Derek Urban wants to see more for his team.
After finishing their 2015 regular season campaign 4-6-0 in the conference, the Stars toppled the No. 1 seed Palmer Moose 3-1 in the semis to punch their ticket to state. SoHi lost the NLC championship game 3-0 to Colony.
At state, SoHi lost to Chugiak 9-2 and West Valley 7-1, which continued the tradition of peninsula schools being unable to advance past the first round of the state tournament.
Urban said the team took a lot of pride in defeating Palmer in the region tournament, a victory that could propel the team to greater heights this year.
“That was a big one,” Urban said. “There are a lot of kids back from that team last year, and they all remember it.”
Leading a formidable SoHi defensive unit this year is junior goalkeeper Billy Yoder, who will be back between the pipes for a third season. Urban said Yoder’s maturity level is what could spell the difference for SoHi this year, as the young buck was “thrown to the wolves” as a freshman two years ago.
“He’s understanding what’s going on on the ice better, communicating with his teammates and communicating with the coaching staff as well,” Urban said. “He’s seeing stuff we’re not seeing and pointing it out.
“His hockey IQ is getting better.”
Four seniors on the team will also play a role in leading the way, Urban said. The class consists of forwards Levi Hensley, Ethan Brown, Jace Urban and defenseman Trevor Witthus.
A potential star of the team, junior Cameron Knowlton, will be missing from the lineup this year due to a year playing in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, where he joined the Wranglers of the Rocky Mountain Junior Hockey League. Knowlton was the leading scorer for the Stars last year, and Urban said his offensive mastery will be missed.
However, Urban praised the emergence of a large freshman class that could fill the gaps in any lost talent.
“These are kids that have played a high level of hockey,” Urban said. “That class as a whole to me is an exciting class, our young group is so talented and really deep.
“We have some depth this year that we haven’t had in a long time.”
Like the Stars, the Kardinals are suffering from losing would-be players this year.
Kenai lost forwards Tristan Bulot and Ian Mercado, two valuable seniors that have moved down south to pursue better opportunities.
Bulot has joined former Kenai player Cody Arbelovsky on the Eugene Generals in Oregon, a Tier III squad in the North Pacific Hockey League, while Mercado has set up camp in Helena, Montana, playing with the Bighorns at the Tier III junior level in the NA3HL.
“We just have to regroup the following year,” Tilly said. “You can look at it two ways. You can think, ‘Oh, woe is me, we lost a kid,’ or you can say we developed better players.”
Tilly said the players he was able to retain exude a desire to play tough and scratch out victories when they can get them, and pointed to one of the top defenseman in the NHL as an example.
“When every kid starts playing hockey, they all want to be Wayne Gretzky,” he said. “No one wants to be Duncan Keith.”
Keith is an award-winning defenseman who hoisted three Stanley Cups with the Chicago Blackhawks from 2010 to 2015.
It is the grittiness, the intangible behind-the-scenes work that players do which draws Tilly to them and their talents. Tilly said one of the tipping points last year was a hard-fought 6-5 victory over Lathrop at the Big Lake Lions Classic tournament, and he saw a lot of the hard work the team put forth.
“A lot of kids are still talking about that game,” Tilly said. “That was a big win for us.”
This year’s senior class consists of two forwards, Jacob Kilfoyle and Jonathan Hawkins, and their starting goaltender, Ryan Williams.
Adding to the mix is junior utility player Jacob O’Brien, junior forwards Tyler Lingafelt and Levi Mese, junior defenseman Matt Hagel, junior defender Brenna Eubank, and Matthew Zorbas, who is back after having surgery last year. Sophomore defender Bailey Maxson also will shore up the back row.
Tilly said he has nine or 10 freshman coming in, which has been a positive influx of fresh, new talent.
“Fortunately, my assistant coach (Vaughn Dosko) knows a lot of these players,” Tilly said. “He’s talked with them and encouraged them to come up and play high school hockey.”
The Mariners hockey team will be getting a new head coach this season, as 2006 Homer graduate Justin Adams steps up into the top spot, replacing John Carlin.
Adams grew up in Homer and competed for the Kenai Peninsula Hockey Association club team in his youth. As a player for the Homer High School team, Adams went to state twice, when the Mariners competed in the former Greatland Conference. The squad made it to the championship game in 2005, Adams’ junior season, where they lost to Houston.
Adams also played college hockey at Division II Franklin Pierce University (New Hampshire), before moving on to coach at the junior level with the Bremerton (Washington) West Sound Warriors.
Last year, he coached with the Aspen Leafs (Colorado), a Tier III team, before he made the decision to return to Alaska.
“This was a good opportunity for me,” Adams said about taking up the job. “It’s a good way to give back.”
Adams will be inheriting a Homer team that finished 2-8-0 in region play last year, which was good for fifth place among the NLC teams.
Homer ended its season with a 3-2 loss to SoHi at the NLC tournament, but Adams said he has faith that this year’s Mariners can get further.
Plus, he is already familiar with the current cast of players.
“The kids that are now juniors and seniors, they were the first group that started with the (Homer) rink when it opened in 2006,” Adams explained. “So seeing them now, I’d like to coach them, and it’s a good opportunity for myself.”
Adams said there are currently about 23 names on the roster, and nearly half of them are freshman.
Among the returning starters is senior forward Garrett Butcher, along with a big group of junior forwards that include Robbie Larson, Tim Blakely, Douglas Dean and Charlie Menke.
Starting between the pipes will be sophomore Hunter Warren, who Adams said will likely get more time at goaltender than senior Riley Swanson, last year’s starter.
“I know (Warren) didn’t see a lot of ice last year, but he’s a good young kid and he’s competing well,” Adams said.
The big task for this team is to get them to state, Adams said, but it will take a linear progression of solid play to make it to that point.
“We just play to our kids’ strength,” he explained. “We have good team speed, we play fast transition hockey and we get on the forecheck as much as we can.