Kevin Murdock hit the ground running as the new head coach of the Kenai River Brown Bears and so far it’s paying big dividends for the North American Hockey League team.
Murdock was named head coach on April 11. Associate general manager Chris Hedlund overnighted Murdock some Brown Bears gear and he was at the NAHL Combine in Detroit from April 12 to 14 scouting for his new team.
One reason Hedlund said Murdock was hired is that Murdock was prepared in interviews to take over the job from day one.
So Murdock knew the Bears’ top priority coming into this season was to get more scoring. As he popped in and out of the rink make phone calls for his new job and watched games from 10 in the morning to 10 at night, Theo Thrun caught Murdock’s eye by tucking in a goal or two in every game.
“I was pretty impressed with him and offered him a tender not long after there,” Murdock said. “He was kind of unsure of his plans for this year.”
Murdock persisted and took Thrun in the second round of the NAHL Draft on June 4.
“I knew he wanted to play junior hockey and was looking at a number of different things,” Murdock said. “Once we drafted him and had his rights in the NA, it didn’t take a ton of convincing.”
Thrun, 18, decided to come to the Bears and leads the team through 17 games with nine goals and 20 points.
“We thought he would be in our top six because of offensive ability, but he’s put in so much work since he’s been here that’s he worked his way into our top six and solidified his top-six role,” Murdock said.
The coach said Thrun has to be consistently yelled at to get off the ice after practice so the Zamboni can roll through.
Thrun said all the work comes from a deep passion for hockey that runs through his family, which includes father, Troy; mother, Karen; brother, Travus; and sister, Tori.
In 2017, Troy was inducted into the Western Michigan University Hockey Ring of Honor for his career from 1983 to 1986. He had 81 goals and 102 assists in 122 games, and still has the school record for game-winning goals in a season with six.
He then played pro in Germany, averaging 1.45 points per game and racking 199 goals and 144 assists in five seasons.
“My dad is the one who really got me into it,” Theo said. “Our family is a huge hockey family.”
Troy owns On Your Game, a hockey pro shop, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The pro shop actually sponsors Theo’s road sweater, but more importantly having that pro shop allowed Theo to get as much ice time as he wanted growing up. He started skating at 2, playing organized hockey and 5 or 6, and said he’s played every day since.
“I have free ice time whenever I want it back home,” Thrun said. “It’s huge. It definitely helps with working on the skills.
“Ice time is the biggest thing about this sport.”
The Thruns are so supportive of Theo that they came to Alaska for the first four-game Brown Bears homestand of the year. Troy and Tori also took in the series against the Northeast (Massachusetts) Generals in Boston last weekend.
“They’re super supportive, which is awesome,” Thrun said.
A final advantage Thrun gets from his family comes from his skates. On Your Game says it has the best skate sharpening in town. Thrun always does his own skates and said he’s sharpened skates for teammates as well.
“It’s not easy,” he said. “You have to get them lined up and get a good finish and nice touch on it.”
The other, more important, touch Thrun has is for scoring.
“It’s something you just can’t teach,” Murdock said. “You can teach a kid to be in a good spot, and teach him to put the shot where you want, but he just has the innate ability to finish it off.”
While evolutionary biologists would argue that it’s ridiculous for valuable space on DNA to be devoted to something as specific as scoring goals in hockey, Thrun may beg to differ.
“My dad always taught me how to score goals and how to get in positions to do that because obviously at Western he was a big goal scorer,” Thrun said. “He’s in the Hall of Fame there for that. So I guess you can say it’s genetics.”
Thrun has always scored big for the prestigious Fox Motors Hockey Club, which he joined in his U13 year. Last season in the Tier I Elite Hockey League — one of the best AAA leagues in the country — Thrun led his team with 16 goals in 28 games.
Thrun, who is 5-foot-11, 165 pounds, said there has been an adjustment to the bigger, more physical players in the NAHL. He credits his coaches and his teammates — particularly linemates Logan Ritchie and Eagle River’s Zach Krajnik — with making the adjustment easier.
Murdock said, before the season, he wouldn’t have thought Thrun would be the leading scorer at this point. When asked about that, Thrun said he’s more concerned that he’s helping the team.
“I just want to come in and provide as much as I can,” he said. “The team’s done a really good job of helping me do that.
“My linemates Ritchie and Krajnik are awesome to play with and we’re really good friends off the ice and on the ice, too.”
Thrun said his goal is to play Division I hockey next season, listing Western Michigan as his dream school. He said he’s working hard in his online classes and on his game to make that happen.
“He’ll definitely be a Division I hockey player,” Murdock said. “He’s getting really good interest from schools so far this year. (Associate head coach) Dan Bogdan and I are helping him round out his game as best we can.
“If he can round out his game at every level he moves to and keep producing, the sky’s the limit for him.”
Initially, Thrun said moving to Alaska was a big step. But the billet son of Steve and Lindsay Hallam of Kenai said a few hikes, the view of the mountains and ocean out his bedroom door, and the quality of the Brown Bears organization have convinced him he made the right move.
“Let hockey take you special places, and it definitely did,” Thrun said.