Those showing up to watch the Kenai River Brown Bears take on the Springfield (Illinois) Jr. Blues will see a Brown Bears club in the midst of immense change.
But coach Jeff Worlton said that, while preparing for the future, the club will still be trying hard to earn wins in the 15 North American Hockey League games left this season. That starts with games tonight and Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
“I’m not focused on the young men that left, I’m focused on the young men that are here,” Worlton said. “They’re going to play hard, enthusiastic and try to get a win. That’s all I can say.
“The fans that support us — we appreciate the support as we’re going through growing pains.”
The Bears are 3-41-1 this season, including 1-10 since Worlton replaced former head coach Geoff Beauparlant on Jan. 10.
Kenai River, which has lost eight straight, has just 11 players left on the roster who appeared in Beauparlant’s last game. Just six of those players started the season with the Bears, while only two remain from last season.
Worlton said the rapid turnover since his arrival doesn’t surprise him and has happened for a number of reasons.
Some players have moved on to better opportunities. Former alternate captain Sam Carlson and former captain Adam Kresl are in their final years of junior hockey and still seeking college commitments.
Worlton said Carlson requested a move to a playoff team early in Worlton’s tenure and ended up with the Topeka (Kansas) RoadRunners.
The coach also said Kresl was planning to stay with the Bears until the end of the season, but then the Minnesota Wilderness, the defending Robertson Cup champions, expressed interest in him.
“They thought he’d be a good piece of the puzzle to make a playoff push,” Worlton said. “When the opportunity came up, he was excited to go.”
Worlton said the Bears have not named new captains.
Several more players have made their way to the United States Hockey League, the top junior league in the United States.
Justin Bofshever is with the Dubuque (Iowa) Fighting Saints, while Anchorage’s Croix Evingson has earned an opportunity with the Chicago Steel.
“Croix came out of nowhere,” Worlton said. “They asked about seeing if we would let him go, and we let him go to that higher level.”
Worlton also said a change in culture has made some players leave.
“We’ve come in and brought accountability, structure, discipline, and some like it, and some don’t,” Worlton said. “That’s just life.”
The coach said the Bears are also looking at players for a few games with an eye toward next season, leading to more constant change on the roster.
“We’ve gotten younger everywhere,” Worlton said.
The Bears recently traded for Connor Inger and Davis Sebald.
Inger, a forward, came from the Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets of the NAHL, where he scored a goal in seven games.
“We feel like he’s got a lot of talent and upside,” Worlton said of Inger, who has two years of junior eligibility left after this season.
Sebald, a 6-2, 185-pound defenseman, comes from the New Jersey Titans of the NAHL, where he is a plus-12 in 23 games with a goal and an assist. He has one more year of junior eligibility after this season.
“He’s a defenseman that plays with an edge,” Worlton said.
The Bears also have reacquired Homer High School graduate Tommy Bowe, who began the season with the Bears.
“We’re trying to build that local bridge and we’re excited to have him here,” Worlton said.
The Bears are 1-3 this season against Springfield, a squad which is 23-16-5 and one game out of third place in the Midwest Division.
Evan Butcher will miss tonight’s game due to a one-game suspension, while Kyle Martin begins a four-game suspension.