The ice will be cold and the action will be hot this year in the world of high school hockey.
But the change of leadership may be just as exciting to watch unfold.
Kenai Central and Soldotna both enter the new season with new head coaches, which along with a bevy of new faces in uniform only adds to the amount of change on the benches.
After Aaron Swanson took the Stars hockey squad to the state tournament last year, he decided to call it quits.
That’s where Derek Urban has stepped in. Urban has taken charge of the Stars this season, and said he hopes to take SoHi to a third-straight state tournament berth.
“It’s attainable,” Urban said. “The boys know they have to work really hard. Last year’s squad proved a lot of folks wrong, and I’m pretty confident that this year, the guys understand what they have to do.”
Pete Iverson is stepping down as coach of Kenai and assistant Michael Tilly is stepping up. Tilly and Vaughn Dosko will pair up to try and help Kenai get back to the state tournament for the first time since 2010.
“I may look calm at front, but inside, I’m paddling like a duck,” Tilly said. “There’s so much to be done.”
Homer is the only team returning with a familiar face on the bench, as John Carlin comes back for a second year.
The season ends with the state tournament at the Curtis Menard Sports Complex in Wasilla, Feb. 12 to 14. The top two teams from the North Star Conference tournament — slated for Feb. 5 to 7 in Wasilla — will qualify for state.
Wasilla and Colony wrapped up the top two seeds at last year’s NSC tourney with identical 7-2-1 records in the regular season. But it was third-seeded Soldotna taking home the hardware after an epic 3-2 win against Wasilla in the championship game that lasted four overtime periods.
Soldotna was a team last year that finished up its NSC regular season at 6-4, while Kenai ended up 5-5, a result that went down to the final game of the year. The Stars edged Kenai in overtime to decide the final standings and conference tournament seedings. The Homer Mariners took the fifth seed with a 3-5-2 conference mark.
After nearly five years of playing the role of assistant to Swanson and Pat Nolden, the 2014-15 season will be the first for Urban as a head coach of a high school team, but his experience elsewhere will play a big role in the success of the Stars. Urban has coached at the Kenai Peninsula Hockey Association level for 20 years, and has brought up some of the current players from their days playing on the Midget, Bantam and Pee Wee levels.
After outlasting Wasilla in the region title game last February to secure Soldotna’s first conference championship since 2009, the Stars are looking for more of the same, but they are going to have to do it with a younger team.
Soldotna lost four seniors from last year’s squad, including state All-Tournament team member Cody Harvey, a standout goalie. Along with Harvey, SoHi lost talented forwards Nick Wrobel, Jacob O’Lena and Hunter Lott.
SoHi also lost Preston Weeks and Kenny Griffin to hockey opportunities in the Lower 48.
“You can’t trade experience for anything, but a lot of these kids have been with KPHA, so I expect them to step up,” Urban said. “There will be a learning curve for sure.”
Offseason work — including time in the summer ice program that has been put together by Red Line Sports — has helped some players to get a jump-start on the winter season, but many players have also been busy with other sports, such as football.
“Yep, we’ve got a couple football players, which is good,” Urban said. “But (many) went to the summer league and skills clinics, too.”
Urban said the current roster has over 25 players, which could fluctuate due to eligibility checks.
On that roster, Urban said the tentative starters include Ty Fenton, Jace Urban, Coel Nelson, Ethan Brown, Levi Hensley and Stephen Endsley on offense, while defensive stalwarts Justice Miller, Kenny Flanders and Calvin Hills will likely get the nod. Urban scored two goals Thursday night against Homer on the first day of the Peninsula Ice Challenge, including the game winner. Fenton, a senior, has been named team captain, and coach Urban expects him and Nelson to have big years.
Freshman Billy Yoder and sophomore Will Rogers will battle for the starting job as goalie, a big position to fill after Harvey graduated. Thursday night, Yoder got the nod.
“We’re pretty excited about the season, it’ll be a new venture for the boys and me,” Urban said.
Like Urban at SoHi, Michael Tilly is beginning his first stint as head coach at the prep level, but he too has over 10 years coaching experience in other levels of the game. That experience will be tested early on.
Not only did the Kards lose several talented seniors from last year’s squad — names such as TJ Wagoner, Nathan Zorbas and Justin Alvey — but several players that were expected to return instead took their talents to be used in other endeavors.
For example, Jake Eubank, Kenai’s top scorer last year, is off playing U-18 hockey in Colorado. Ross Hanson, a starting freshman last year, is also in Colorado playing on a U-16 team. Conner Johnson, a stifling defenseman, is playing amongst the U-16 ranks in California, and coach Tilly’s son, also named Michael, is competing for the West Sound (Washington) Warriors in the Northern Pacific Hockey League.
Basically, Kenai is starting from scratch. With such a big shift in the team, Tilly has a simple solution to help him figure out who will start and who will play support.
“All you can do is drop a puck and see what happens,” Tilly said.
Thursday night, Kenai saw what happens when going up against a large schools opponent. The Kards were shut out 6-0 by Eagle River in their opening game of the tournament and the season.
Last year’s Kenai squad went 5-5 in conference play, but was ousted in the region tournament. Tilly said the team has not set a goal for the year yet, but he expects when the group gets into the meat of the schedule, the expectations will become clearer.
“I think most times people set goals that are tangible,” he said. “My goals are intangible.
“I knew going in this year will be about player development. It’ll be about the individual players, so they come together as a whole, create good habits, and hopefully by the end of the season, we’ll be sitting in good spot.”
Tilly said while some may call this a rebuilding year, he sees a potential for growth.
“The kids are just sponges,” he said. “They’re young and eager, with a lot of talent, and you just have to hone them and make them more efficient.”
Tilly said on the current roster of 25 skaters, he has two seniors, and one is a goalie.
Also included on that list are six girls. Tilly said the high number of female players is partially attributed to the trend of popularity that has seen an increasing number of female participants in the sport.
“When local girls hockey kicked off (several years ago), these girls were riding the wave,” Tilly said.
The Kards will field a team capable of producing three solid lines on the ice this weekend, Tilly said.
Starting at the goaltender spot, senior Nate O’Lena returns as the last line of defense for the Kards, and will be supported by senior defenseman Riley Weber, sophomore Zach Selinger, freshman Matt Hagel and sophomore Jacob O’Brien. Freshman Bradley Kishbaugh and Kylie Morse will be backup goalies for the year.
The front line will most likely be assembled with junior winger Dalton Dosko, junior center Cody Arbelovsky, Zach Mese, sophomore Matthew Zorbas and Joe Gabriel. Coach Tilly mentioned that he remembers playing against Gabriel’s father when he was a high school player himself.
“There’s all the family connections that are still here,” Tilly said.
John Carlin returns to coach the Mariners for a second consecutive year, and as a former member of the Soldotna coaching staff, he sees the Soldotna banners of past season hanging when he visits the central Peninsula.
With many returning starters being joined by a new cast of freshman faces, Carlin is learning to balance the team.
“We’re keeping it positive this year,” Carlin said. “We want everyone to come out to the rink and support the team.”
The Mariners finished last season off with a 3-5-2 conference record, seeding them fifth in the NSC tourney. This year, Carlin made it clear what the teams goal is.
“We wanna go to the state tournament,” he stated. “We were not at all satisfied with the end of last year, we want to go to state.
“I don’t wanna be watching the tournament anymore, I’m done with that.”
The Homer hockey squad has never hung a state banner before, but Carlin would be happy with a region championship banner as well.
“We wanna hang something up in our barn that we have to look at,” Carlin said.
Carlin said the importance of finishing the season as a high seed cannot be stressed enough, adding that the Mariners will need to be among the top four entering the region tournament.
Thursday night at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex, Homer rallied back from a two-goal deficit to temporarily forge a tie with Soldotna, but the Stars ultimately won 4-3 with a late goal. Last year, Homer beat SoHi 2-1 in the season series.
However, a few core seniors graduated from the team, including high-production players such as Konstantin Reutov and Tommy Bowe.
“We’ve got eight or nine seniors that are gonna be starters, but also about that many freshman as well,” he said.
Carlin said his current roster is sitting around 25 or so players, almost twice as many as last season.
“We were struggling, we were the dirty dozen a lot of the time last year,” Carlin said. “We just didn’t have the numbers, but now we’re almost double.”
The Mariners’ core of returning starters start with senior Markian Polushkin, who returns to as the starting goaltender, with support from backup goalie Riley Swanson.
Up front, the Mariners return Clem Tillion, Kiril Sanarov, Ulian Kuzmin and Anton Kuzmin.