Season preview: Bears look to put last season behind them

All offseason, the entire Kenai River Brown Bears organization — from players to coaches to scouts — spent their time trying to figure out why the Brown Bears posted the worst record in the North American Hockey League in 2014-15.

Tonight and Saturday night, Kenai River begins to get the answer to whether the problems unearthed, and the solutions hatched, were the right ones.

The Bears open the 2015-16 season with 7:30 p.m. games at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex against the in-state rival and perennial powerhouse Fairbanks Ice Dogs.

If there is an umbrella concept under which many of last year’s problems would fall, head coach Geoff Beauparlant would choose continuity.

In 2013-14 and 2014-15, the Bears earned their fifth and sixth straight trips to the playoffs. In those years, the Bears were competitive in the playoffs for the first time, pushing Fairbanks to five games each year before losing.

After the 2014-15 campaign, the Bears lost a few players early to Division I schools, and many other skaters that were eligible to return attempted to leave the Tier II NAHL for the Tier I United States Hockey League.

Many didn’t stick on USHL rosters and came back to the Bears during the season, but it led to a situation where just nine of the 20 skaters on opening night were with the team by the end of the year.

Beauparlant, entering his third year as coach as the organization enters its ninth year, said the players brought back were good hockey players and solid team players. But he said he learned his lesson about tinkering with a moving car.

“That’s the continuity piece,” he said. “We were bringing too many guys in and the roster had constant turnover. The year before, just six guys came in and out through the whole year.

“It was a huge difference and we learned our lesson as a staff.”

Captain Jack Gessert and alternate captains Sam Carlson and Adam Kresl all agreed that the team last year didn’t get the advantage of forming a tight bond in training camp because of roster turnover.

“We’ve done everything right so far,” said Carlson, the Kenny Lake skater who is back for his second year. “This group of guys is a lot closer, and we’re more of a team already at this point in camp.”

Gessert, who was one of the players who joined the team late after not making the USHL last season, also said the chemistry is better thus far. The captain led the Bears last season with 48 points and 27 goals. Next on the list of returning leading scorers is Anchorage’s Evan Butcher with 12 points.

“Two years ago, I remember everyone was always looking forward to practice and getting to work,” Gessert said. “Last year, I know I didn’t feel that on some days I came here. It got to be a real grind.”

Something else that was lost in the shuffling was what Beauparlant called the Brown Bears’ identity as a blue-collar team. There were just four veterans at the main camp last season, as opposed to 10 this season.

Beauparlant and the captains said the lack of veterans and roster turnover led to the team losing its gritty identity during the season. All agreed the Bears were able to get that mentality back late in the season — too late to make the playoffs but also giving the squad something on which to build.

Kresl said the point of emphasis this season is to compete — every second and every shift. Beauparlant said the team last year tried a little too much flash and dash. Kresl said puck possession and “greasy” goals will be the name of the game this season.

“That’s just the Brown Bear way, and we kind of got away from it last year,” he said.

Gessert agreed.

“I’ve been here three years, or 2 1-2 years, so I’ve gotten to meet a lot of people in Kenai and Soldotna,” he said. “They are hard-working, gritty type people who work 9 to 5 or go to work on the Slope for a week.

“When they come to the games on Friday and Saturday, they want to see a little of themselves on the ice. That means gritty, physical play and finishing checks.”

Beauparlant was previously mixing in former head coach Oliver David’s players with his players, but now that transition is complete. Currently, 12 of the 24 protected players were tendered or drafted by the Bears this offseason.

“Now it’s guys we’ve recruited that fit the style I want to play and have wanted to play,” Beauparlant said.

He said that style is up-tempo with a physical presence, solid defensive zone play and some playmaking skills. And, of course, greasy goals.

“He has changed practice to give us more touches around the net,” Kresl said of Beauparlant.

The Bears will have little room for error in a stacked Midwest Division, which gets four spots in the playoffs. The NAHL uses an unbalanced schedule, so the Bears will play Fairbanks, winners of the 2014 Robertson Cup, 16 times.

The defending Robertson Cup champion Minnesota Wilderness are in the division, as are the Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets, who had the best regular season record last season.

The division is rounded out by the Coulee Region (Wisconsin) Chill and the Springfield (Illinois) Jr. Blues. Both squads have veteran coaches that have been around for multiple seasons and put solid programs in place.

To make the playoffs, the Bears must do better against the Ice Dogs, who were 13-3 against Kenai River in 2013-14 and 14-2 against the Bears last season.

But Carlson pointed out that there is really no way to prepare just for Fairbanks. The team must be prepared to play well against everybody.

“For Fairbanks specifically, we have to wait and see what they bring,” he said. “They have a whole different team and we have a whole different team.”

And Carlson also said tough competition is what the players signed up for in their dream of getting a Division I scholarship. Kenai River has road trips to the Midwest and East Coast lined up.

“The Brown Bears will be getting plenty of exposure,” he said. “There won’t be any excuses as far as feeling like you didn’t get looked at.”

But Gessert said everyone on the team has learned another lesson from last season, and that is that Division I deals are tough to come by when losses are mounting.

“My goal is to play Division I hockey, but I’ve got to be focused on team success,” he said. “First comes the team’s success, then individual success will follow.”

While Beauparlant said last year was tough to swallow, he said it can ultimately be a building block to success.

“I can tell you the returning guys are hungry and ticked off,” he said. “They’re not happy with what went on last year.

“They want to prove it was an off year. They’re excited and they’ve got the new guys excited about getting the Brown Bears back on track.”

Bears notes: The Bears currently have 24 on the roster and must be down to 23 by Oct. 1. Players cut to get to 24 were defensemen Braden Mitchell, Miles Lengyel and Soldotna High School product Preston Weeks.

Beauparlant said Weeks will play with the Pikes Peak (Colorado) Miners U-18 team in order to get ready to make the Bears next year. …

Forward Nick Klishko will miss the weekend series with an injury. …

Beauparlant said the Bears are in the process of moving forward and Wasilla product Tanner Schachle to the Okotoks Oilers of the Alberta Junior Hockey League, but details of the trade have not been finalized. Kenai River has not yet found a trade partner for Wasilla skater Colton Fletcher. The Bears announced on their Twitter account on July 15 that the pair had been placed on indefinite suspension. The coach said he will discuss the suspension once the trades are made. …

The Bears will honor first responders tonight. The game sponsor is Firehouse Barbecue. Saturday’s sponsor is Anytime Fitness.

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