On a gorgeous, late-summer night on a Kenai Peninsula rife with hunting, fishing and hiking opportunities, a group of about 10 fans showed up at 5 p.m. at the Kenai Multi-Purpose Facility to tailgate for the Kenai River Brown Bears’ annual Brown-Gold Game.
By 6:30 p.m., 200 fans had made their way to the rink and the night of head coach Josh Petrich was already made.
“That’s the reason I wanted to come here,” Petrich said after Gold defeated Brown 3-2. “The community is second to none.
“They show up and support the team no matter what.”
Based on social media and casual interactions with community members at places like his bank, Petrich thought the Bears might get a pretty good turnout for the scrimmage even though the squad has missed the North American Hockey League playoffs the past four years.
He said the crowd, which came to kick the tires on this year’s team before the season opener at the Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets on Friday, shows the Bears continue to make inroads on connecting with the community. The coach said the team continues to do things to help cement that connection, such as helping longtime supporter Art Karvonen move last week and also holding a canned food drive Friday night.
“You saw the growth in the fan base last season,” Petrich said. “We want to make the Brown Bears the thing to do in the winter.”
The scrimmage was the last chance for players to make an impression before the roster was cut down to 25 players Saturday morning. Petrich said the official roster will be released in the middle of the week.
Emils Ezitis and Filip Karlsson had the goals for Brown, while Andy Warhoftig, Cody Moline and Alex Stuckert tallied for Gold.
One player who will not be on the final roster is Sacha Guillemain, who was traded for assets to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (Pennsylvania) Knights last week. Guilleman played in 56 games for the Bears last year, tallying seven goals and 22 assists.
“It’s a better opportunity for him,” Petrich said. “All these kids have goals and aspirations.
“We granted him a better chance of reaching those somewhere else.”
Petrich said it is not easy to replace Guillemain’s production but the Brown-Gold Game was a positive sign.
“At the Brown-Gold Game this year, compared to last year, there was a lot more skill and a lot more plays being made,” the coach said.
Petrich said the roster is deeper and more experienced. He said another change is the team is solid from the defensemen on out instead of the forwards back in, as was the case last season.
An experienced fan base watching the team embark on its 12th season knows a lot can’t be read into the game, and Petrich agreed that nothing major changed Friday.
“Our No. 1 goal is still to make the playoffs,” he said. “We’d also like to have six players make Division I commitments, and we already have phone calls coming in.”
And Division I coaches attending the scrimmage.
New University of Alaska Anchorage head coach Matt Curley drove down for the scrimmage along with assistant Mark Phalon.
“We have a significant interest in the NAHL,” Curley said. “We want to track the league this season. We have a team in our backyard and a team in Fairbanks and we want to take advantage of it.”
Curley likes the type of player the NAHL produces.
“This league is very similar to our league, with hard-nosed players who had to scrap and claw to work their way up to play college hockey,” he said.
Curley also likes the idea of recruiting players for whom Alaska is not an unknown.
“The first question we ask players is, ‘Have you ever been here?’” he said. “Coach Phalon and I had never been here until we were fortunate enough to get this opportunity.