The Kenai River Brown Bears will move quickly to name their next head coach as the North American Hockey League team prepares for its 13th season on a five-year playoff drought.
Nate Kiel, general manager, and Chris Hedlund, associate general manager, are heading up a small search committee. Hedlund said the goal is to have a coach named by April 15.
“It’s the time,” Hedlund said. “People are chasing players hard right now.”
The Bears are looking for a replacement for Josh Petrich, who resigned Feb. 10 for personal reasons. Petrich was on the job almost two seasons. Kenai River was 15-23-2-2 this season when Petrich resigned. The coach had an 18-38-1-3 record in the 2017-18 season.
Petrich was named head coach in mid-May of 2017. Looking back, Hedlund said that hiring was late and made Petrich scramble.
“There’s lot of recruiting, tenders being signed and getting ready for the draft,” Hedlund said. “Every day counts.”
Dan Bogdan moved up from assistant coach to interim head coach and went 8-8-1-1 down the stretch.
“We told him, based on how he performed down the stretch, that he is a finalist,” Hedlund said. “The rest is to be determined.”
Bogdan said he would love to return.
“Thank you to the community for supporting the team and myself during the coaching change, and making the time to come speak to me,” he said. “It’s been a great first year in Kenai and I hope to come back for a second.”
Both Hedlund and Bogdan said the team is on the cusp of making the playoffs.
The team completed a 9-7-0-1 stretch to start the season with a 2-1 victory over the Springfield (Illinois) Jr. Blues on Nov. 2. Then came a 3-15-2-1 spell that ended with a 2-1 loss to the Blues on Jan. 9.
Kenai River won three of the last four games under Petrich and would finish on an 11-9-1-1 kick that left them in fifth place in the Midwest Division. The Bears finished at 23-31-3-3, six games out of the final playoff spot in the division.
“I think we were pretty close this year,” Bogdan said. “The change was good for the team and organization. A lot of the guys came together to make a pretty good run. Something was eating at them for a while.
“They bought in the last two months and also played well at the beginning of the season.”
When the team struggled, the reason was trouble scoring. The Bears averaged just 2.3 goals per game, second worst in the league. Both Hedlund and Bogdan said increasing scoring is the focus for next season.
Goaltender Gavin Enright, who has committed to Division I Bemidji State, has a year of junior eligibility remaining. Hedlund and Bogdan are not sure if he will return.
“If we’re able to get him back, that’d be great,” Bogdan said. “I’m not in this position to be selfish and keep him around so the team can be great. The idea is to advance kids to the next level so they can be successful in college and professional hockey.”
The Bears lose Markuss Komuls, committed to Division I University of Alaska Fairbanks, from the defensive corps. The other seven defenders are eligible to return. Soldotna’s Preston Weeks, the team’s captain, will be back on defense, according to Bogdan.
“Defense is the last of my worries,” the interim coach said after his team finished 12th in the league in goals allowed. “We need to score more goals next year.”
All but four of the forwards are eligible to return, but four of the team’s top six scorers will depart. The Bears’ top scorer by a healthy margin of 13 points, Zach Krajnik of Eagle River, is eligible to return.
“This group coming back up front, as well as the guys we’re recruiting, it will be about getting those guys to produce more than they did this year,” Bogdan said.
Hedlund said the community continues to support the Bears.
“Financially, it was a good, solid year,” Hedlund said. “The community does a great job supporting the team and the players. There are strong sponsors, and they stepped up down the stretch for meal support and organizational support.”
The Bears were 13-15-1-1 away from the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex and 10-14-2-2 in front of the faithful. Hedlund said the team is accumulating more and more of the big, strong-skating forwards that will succeed on the big ice sheet at home.
“It is a focus for us,” Hedlund said. “We do want to reward the fans for that local support.”
Bogdan said the team is built to succeed at home. Kenai River finished with a 7-4-0-1 spurt in front of friendly crowds. The interim coach said that Kenai River’s tough stretch during the middle of the season came during a lot of home games, but Bogdan said that stretch wasn’t caused by being at home.
The interim head coach said seven players off this year’s team will commit to colleges. Only three can be announced at this point — Enright, Komuls and Jackson Nauss going to play at Division III University of Wisconsin-River Falls.
Bogdan said other successes were all the volunteer hours in the community and getting the organization and Kenai Peninsula exposure outside of Alaska. When the team hiked to practice at Lower Fuller Lake in early November, Bogdan posted on his Instragram. He said the post was picked up by another site and got almost 250,000 views.
“I’d really like to do more to sell the experience to kids who don’t know as much about it,” Bogdan said.