The Kenai River Brown Bears still have a chance at survival.
After the North American Hockey League Board of Governors meeting on Feb. 26, Brown Bears general manager Nate Kiel announced the team would take on inactive status for next season.
Since then, Sterling’s Steve Stuber has pushed to see what could be done to make the Brown Bears active again for next season. Stuber now said a group looking to save the Bears has until April 15 to show it can raise $300,000.
“Our big push, for right now, is that ‘Save the Bears’ is real,” Stuber said. “That’s the real biggie.”
Stuber said a committee of 10 met Tuesday night to plan how to save the team. He said that meeting may have marked a turning point in getting the community to believe the effort is real because before Tuesday, he wasn’t getting a lot of phone calls about saving the Bears.
That changed Wednesday.
“If you want to know the truth, I’m amazed. We had said we wanted to save the Bears, and the phones weren’t ringing. And then today it changed. This is the longest I’ve been able to talk to anyone all day,” Stuber said at the end of a 10-minute interview with a reporter.
The group has two big focuses right now. The first is to fill the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex for Friday’s game against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (Pennsylvania) Knights at 7:30 p.m. Stuber would like 2,500 fans to pay for a seat Friday, which is a massive task.
For reference, one of the biggest games in the Bears’ history came on April 20, 2013, when the squad had a chance to close out the bitter rival Fairbanks Ice Dogs in Game 4 of the first-round playoffs at the sports complex. That game, a 6-5 overtime loss in which the Ice Dogs scored with 1 minute, 16 seconds, left to force overtime, drew 1,136 fans.
The first game in franchise history, played Sept. 14, 2007, and featuring a franchise first goal by Kasilof’s Garret Bossert in a 6-2 victory over the Alaska Avalanche, brought in 1,200 fans.
“It’s all about perception,” Stuber said. “The more people we can get to Friday night’s game, the more we can show we are for real.”
The committee also is sending out youth players with each of the 23 Brown Bears players with the goal of each getting commitments on 10 season ticket packages for $249.
“We need a fan base right now or the future doesn’t matter,” Stuber said.
The committee also has begun circulating promissory notes to local businesses to try and account for more funds.
Stuber said he was compelled to do what he could to save the team because he believes in the mission of the Kenai Peninsula Youth Foundation and he has a son that loves hockey. The Kenai Peninsula Youth Foundation is a nonprofit formed to support the Brown Bears and use them as the primary vehicle for enhancing the community. In 2009, the Brown Bears were named the Volunteer Organization of the Year by the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce.
“A lot of people don’t understand the Brown Bears are about more than hockey,” Stuber said. “The Kenai Peninsula Youth Foundation does so much volunteering with the Boys and Girls Club, reading in the schools and food drive efforts. There’s so much they do that people don’t realize.”
Stuber’s 7-year-old son, Luke, plays hockey and the family billets Bears goalie Colt Hanks. Stuber said seeing the effect the Brown Bears have on players like his son is one of his primary motivating factors for forming the effort to save the Bears.
“The players go above and beyond with youth hockey,” Stuber said. “The Bears each pick out a kid to spend extra time with.”
Stuber said he believes not just hockey, but sports in general, provides an invaluable way to keep kids out of trouble and send them on the right path in life. He also said the Bears build community.
“On a Friday and Saturday night in the middle of winter in January and February, we can get together as a community and support the Bears,” he said.
The status of the Bears affects not only the community on the central Kenai Peninsula, but Alaska as well. If the Bears were to go away, that would leave the Ice Dogs as the only NAHL team in the western portion of the United States. The closest team to the Ice Dogs would be the Minot (North Dakota) Minotauros, who are about 2,500 miles from Fairbanks.
The effort to save the Bears has the full support of Rob Proffitt, who has been the general manager of the Ice Dogs since 1997.
“I think it’s awesome,” Proffitt said. “Sometimes in life, you don’t acknowledge your support and react until a traumatic event happens. When Kenai said it is closing its doors, I think that got everyone’s attention.”
Proffitt said he would love for the Brown Bears to be part of a junior hockey picture in Alaska that is expanding, not contracting. Because the professional Alaska Aces will be folding at the end of the season, there will be a void that could be filled by junior hockey.
“I’m actually in Anchorage meeting with a large group of very interested folks trying to have junior hockey here in the Southcentral area,” Proffitt said. “We’ve started down a path, but I can’t tell you much more.”
Putting more teams in the West, and specifically in Alaska, has long been a dream of the Ice Dogs and Brown Bears, because their isolation leads to expensive travel.
“Any little bit of support helps, whether it’s buying a season ticket, being a billet family or being part of a volunteer army that turns into a village that runs the whole program,” Proffitt said. “It’s about the community. There is no small piece of the equation.
“Anybody that wants to give back has the real reward of watching some kid chase his dream. Is there anything more rewarding than that?”
Kenai River has pushed over 50 players into the collegiate ranks, and even provided 36 games in the development of Andrej Sustr, a defenseman for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Brown Bears general manager Nate Kiel said Tuesday he was unable to comment on the effort to save the Bears at this time, but Kenai River head coach Jeff Worlton said it is nice to see some energy injected into the program again. While acknowledging the economic realities, Worlton said he has been around the league, seen the support in many markets, and can definitely say the Brown Bears fans deserve a team.
“The fan support is unbelievable,” Worlton said. “They show up win or lose and they throw that fish on the ice even if we’re losing 9-1 and there’s only a minute to go.
“There’s a tailgate before Saturday’s games. It’s a great community for hockey. Hopefully, we can make this work.”