The Kenai River Brown Bears celebrate a second-period goal by Nick Stevens on Friday, April 28, 2023, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak)

The Kenai River Brown Bears celebrate a second-period goal by Nick Stevens on Friday, April 28, 2023, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak)

Season preview: Bears open 2023-24 season Saturday

The Kenai River Brown Bears drop the puck on their 2023-24 season Saturday at 4 p.m. AKDT on the road against the Chippewa (Wisconsin) Steel.

With the Kenai River franchise in its 17th year, fans are accustomed to the massive change the team undergoes each season in the North American Hockey League, which bills itself as the League of Opportunity.

This year is no exception, as Kenai River head coach Taylor Shaw said the Bears return seven players from last season.

That number always sounds low at the beginning of the season, but it’s fairly typical. At the end of the 2021-22 season, Kenai River had 17 on its roster eligible to return, but nine of those players were brought back.

“Every year, the group is going to be different,” Shaw said. “Having some of the success we had last season helped us to obtain even a little bit more skill in terms of the recruits.

“Not to take anything away from last year’s team, because we had a ton of success.”

The Bears went 32-24-4 last season to set a franchise record for wins and points. Kenai River also earned the eighth playoff berth in franchise history, losing 3-0 to the Minnesota Wilderness in the first round.

This came after the Bears finished 14-41-3 in 2021-22, good for the second worst record in the league. Shaw was 11-25-5 as an interim head coach that season, then was named head coach in the offseason and helped engineer the massive turnaround.

While many of the players have changed, most of the coaching staff remains intact with Shaw and assistant coach Dean Weasler returning.

Weasler, a former St. Cloud State University goalie, has been with Shaw since the 2021-22 season. He has around 20 years of coaching experience, including a lot at the high school level.

“At the end of the day, he just loves the guys and wants to help support them,” Shaw said of Weasler. “He has a ton of experience to lean on, and I certainly know he loves being part of the group.”

Assistant Griff Jeska also joins the staff. Jeska, a forward, just got done playing pro in the ECHL and also has NCAA Division I and NAHL experience.

“He’s going to bring a ton, especially to our forward group up front,” Shaw said. “Just in some of the nuances and details on that side of the game.

“He’s been doing a great job so far. The boys have really taken to him.”

The seven returners for the Bears include forwards Nick Stevens, Hayden Walters, Kotaro Tsutsumi, Carson Triggs and Owen Hanson.

Stevens will be in his third year with the club. He is tied for the top returning scorer on the team with 10 goals and 14 assists last season.

Tsutsumi also had 10 goals and 14 assists in his first season for Kenai River.

Walters had 12 goals and nine assists, and Triggs had seven goals in 14 assists, both in their first season with the Bears.

Hanson played 39 games for the Bears and had four goals and eight assists.

Kenai River lost its top five scorers. Ryan Finch, Hunter Newhouse and Noah Holt aged out, while Garett Drotts is with the Fargo (North Dakota) Force of the United States Hockey League, the top junior league in the United States.

Bryce Monrean will play for the Anchorage Wolverines in his hometown this season.

Returning on defense are Joe Manning and Luke Hause.

“Not a large group, but not a small group either with tons of experience for all seven guys,” Shaw said. “We relied quite a bit on all of them last year at some point in the year if not all year.”

Kenai River will have fresh faces in goal. Nils Wallstrom is playing for American International College, while Bryant Marks, will play in the NAHL for the Corpus Christi (Texas) IceRays.

Shaw said junior experience comes from more than the seven returners.

“A big part was going out and getting guys that had junior hockey experience,” he said. “We’ve brought in guys from various junior leagues, and that allows us to hit the ground running this coming weekend.”

Dylan Contreras joins the Bears from Corpus Christi, where he had 25 points in 2021-22 and 32 points in 2022-23 to lead the team in scoring.

Jacob Margarit, a defenseman committed to Division I Army West Point, also joins the Bears from the Madison (Wisconsin) Capitals of the USHL.

Shaw said Kenai River acquired three players from the British Columbia Hockey League, usually considered a higher level than the NAHL.

A player also joins the team from the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, generally considered about even with the NAHL.

Finally, two players join from the NCDC, a junior hockey league in the United States not affiliated with junior hockey. Shaw said the two were top 10 scorers in the league, so should transition to the NAHL well.

Shaw said every team has its own culture, but added that the staff has certain standards for the logo and the Brown Bears.

“They’re the ones that set the standards,” Shaw said of the players. “We’re here to help guide them.

“We have an idea of what we want it to look like, but at the end of the day, they have to do it.”

Kenai River’s home opener is Oct. 7 against the Wolverines. The Bears have two long stretches in Alaska — from Oct. 6 to Dec. 2 and from Feb. 16 to April 6.

With the Wolverines in their third season joining the Bears and Fairbanks Ice Dogs in the league, Shaw said the players have been able to spend more time in Alaska, and thus in the community, and it showed in the large attendance figures at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex last season.

“To be one of the top teams in attendance last season, that doesn’t exist without the community’s support,” Shaw said. “A lot of that goes to our guys getting out in the schools each week and working with the youth hockey association.”

Shaw also said he thinks he has a team suited for Alaska and the big ice at the sports complex. He said the team appears faster than last season, but the true test will come at the sports complex.

The coach also said he recruited all but one player to the team, with the exception being a player that made the team at Main Camp. That means all have been versed in spending time on the peninsula.

“I think a big part of guys wanting to commit to play up there is getting a chance to live in a place that most people dream their entire life to try and visit,” Shaw said. “They get to spend the better part of six months playing hockey up there.”

Shaw said the team could still use a few more people to host some players. Those interested can email

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