The Kenai River Brown Bears enter a three-game series tonight with the Fairbanks Ice Dogs looking for a fresh start in the rivalry and wanting to take a fresh look at some talent.
The Bears and Dogs face off at the Big Dipper Ice Arena in Fairbanks at 7 p.m. tonight and 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. The Bears are 0-10 this season against the Dogs, who lead the North American Hockey League Midwest Division at 29-6-3. This is the first time head coach Jeff Worlton, who is 1-3 thus far at the helm of the Bears, will face Fairbanks.
Worlton is familiar with the atmosphere at the Dipper, having played against the Ice Dogs in juniors and serving as an assistant there when with the Corpus Christi (Texas) IceRays of the NAHL.
“It’s definitely a great atmosphere and a unique atmosphere,” Worlton said. “(General manager) Rob Proffitt does a great job there.
“I’m really excited to get in there and see what we can do.”
Worlton actually will miss the first game of the series due to suspension. The suspension is the result of a verbal confrontation with Springfield (Illinois) Jr. Blues head coach Tony Zasowski after Saturday’s 3-2 loss at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.
Worlton did not want to say much about the suspension. He just wanted to say he was proud of his team for not quitting, cutting the gap to 3-2 with six seconds left in the game, then making sure Springfield didn’t score on the empty net even after winning the draw.
“We could have just said, ‘It’s going to be 4-2. It doesn’t matter,’” Worlton said. “I’m really excited with where we are at.”
At 3-34-1, the Bears are out of playoff contention. Worlton said the rest of the season is a great opportunity to get a close look at players for next year.
Worlton came from the Tier III NA3HL, and the Bears roster is now dotted with NA3HL players he wants to see on the Tier II NAHL stage.
“We never want to be in this type of position, but since we are it’s a unique and great opportunity to try different things and give kids an opportunity,” Worlton said.
In order to be the property of the Bears, the NA3HL players would have to finish the season on the roster. But Worlton said all will head back to their squads for the NA3HL postseason.
The Bears will have to draft or tender the players they like. But Worlton said the advantage is he gets a much better feel for a player this way, as opposed to scouting something like a showcase.
Two of the players are from Worlton’s former team, the Breezy Point (Minnesota) North Stars.
Andrew Heckmann is a 6-5, 210-pound forward with two years of junior eligibility left this season. He had an assist in the Bears’ first home win of the season Friday and finished plus-2 for the weekend.
Billy Nichol is 6-2, 195, and another forward with two years of junior eligibility left after this season. Worlton said Nichol is a physical player that can bring the compete level on the team to a higher level.
The other two new players come from the Metro Jets of Michigan, where Justin Quenneville is head coach. Quenneville and Worlton worked together at Corpus Christi.
Dylan Naumovski is a 6-0, 190 defenseman with one year of junior eligibility left after this season. Jacob Drinkard is a 6-3, 225 forward, also with a year left after this season.
“He’s a big kid that skates well and can make plays and put the puck in the net,” Worlton said.
Worlton said the Bears have no injuries headed into the Fairbanks series, but added Nick Klishko is not ready to play yet. Klishko had 10 points in 48 games for the Bears last season, but has missed the entire season with an upper body injury. He is expected back in a few weeks.