Kenai River Brown Bears head coach Josh Petrich and Fairbanks Ice Dogs head coach Trevor Stewart both are from Elk River, Minnesota, and are good friends.
“I actually talked to him for 25 minutes tonight,” Petrich said Sunday.
Petrich also is in constant contact with Rob Proffitt, the Ice Dogs general manager, due to all of the logistics it takes to bring North American Hockey League teams up to Alaska.
Those relationships will be put on pause today and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 5 p.m. when the Ice Dogs come to the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex to renew their rivalry with the Brown Bears.
“I’m good friends with their entire staff before and after that 60 minutes,” Petrich said. “But for those 60 minutes, we hate them. It’s all in. If you don’t feel that way, you don’t belong in a Brown Bears jersey.”
The Ice Dogs have dominated the rivalry. Fairbanks owns a 42-123-4-4 advantage all-time since the Bears entered the league for the 2007-08 season. Fairbanks has won all five playoff series and three Robertson Cups to the none of the Bears. Stewart has won two of the three league titles for Fairbanks.
The Ravn Cup is the seasonlong battle for supremacy between the two sides. All six Ravn Cups have gone to Fairbanks, plus the Ice Dogs won every season series before the Ravn Cup existed.
“They’re a well-coached team and a well-ran team that has great resources and puts everything into winning,” Petrich said. “At the same time, we’re not going to back down. We’re not going to get scared.”
Last season, Petrich’s first at the helm of the Bears, Kenai River lost the season series to Fairbanks 5-6-0-1. That is the second-best effort the Bears have ever had against Fairbanks, trailing the 8-8-0-0 mark the 2012-13 team had against the Ice Dogs. The 2012-13 squad lost the Ravn Cup because all of Fairbanks’ victories were in regulation, while the Bears won twice in shootouts.
These three games would be important even without the rivalry because of the battle to make the playoffs shaping up in the Midwest Division.
The top four teams in the division make the playoffs. The Minnesota Magicians lead with 34 points, while Janesville (Wisconsin) is in second with 25 points, Fairbanks (9-8-1-2) and Springfield (Illinois) have 21 points and the Bears (9-10-0-1) are in fifth with 19 points.
The Bears led the division before hitting a 2-7-0-1 rough spot. Kenai River has scored just 17 goals in those 10 games.
“We haven’t finished and that’s concerning,” Petrich said. “We have to figure it out and rectify it.”
The coach did say the losses are not indicative of another Bears team about to go into a seasonlong tailspin. He said coaches, including former assistant Nick Sova and current assistant Dan Bogdan, have done well to change the culture.
“I don’t think our losses have been because of players saying, ‘Here we go again,’” Petrich said. “I think the culture is really changed.”
Petrich said the difference between winning and losing is really tight. He said the Bears have a deep and talented group of goalies and defensemen that could take the team a long way with some scoring help.
Thus far, there isn’t much difference between the Bears and Ice Dogs. The two play nearly identical schedules due to travel arrangements, and Fairbanks has scored 57 goals and allowed 53 while Kenai River had scored and allowed 51.
“I think we have a team that could finish fifth, or win the division,” Petrich said. “If we can get to the playoffs, I think we can go to the Robertson Cup.
“I like this group and we’ve played a lot of playoff hockey games already. I don’t know if a lot of teams can say that. I just hope it doesn’t wear on the guys.”
Kenai River will have affiliate player Brandon Lajoie in town for the weekend. Lajoie, of Eagle River, has a 2001 birthdate and has tendered with the Bears for next season. The left-handed forward plays for the Iowa Wild AAA U18 squad and has seven goals and five assists in 14 games for a team coached by Sova.
Bears notes: Friday will have Turkey Bowling sponsored by IGA. … There will be a Teddy Bear Toss on Saturday, and it will also be Small Business Saturday. … B & H Pizza will be the presenting sponsor Sunday.