The Kenai River Brown Bears will begin what could very well be their final homestand tonight and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. when they take on the Minnesota Magicians at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.
Nate Kiel, general manager of the Brown Bears, announced Monday that the Brown Bears will take on inactive status for the 2017-18 season. Kiel did not comment on what that meant for the team beyond next season, but did say that the current state of the Bears’ finances made it the right decision to go inactive.
Head coach Jeff Worlton said the news was a blow for the players. When the Bears go inactive, all the players will be free agents and Worlton and assistant Josh Dallmann will be without jobs.
“There was a wide range of emotions,” Worlton said as the team prepared for a nine-game homestand. “There wasn’t one way they all took it, but they were all upset by it.
“They all grieve in different ways.”
The Bears have lost nine straight to fall out of the playoff race in the North American Hockey League Midwest Division.
Kenai River is 10-36-2-0 and 24 points out of a playoff spot with just 12 games to play. The Magicians are 25-17-3-2 and in second place in the Midwest.
“We’ve made a commitment to see this through for the next five weeks and put our best foot forward,” Worlton said. “We want to make sure the community and the fans that supported us have a good time and leave with a good taste in their mouth.
“We want to show these fans we appreciate them and put a good product on the ice.”
When Worlton arrived in early January last season, the team had just two wins. He said he admired the way fans were still supporting a club that also had the fewest points in the league in 2014-15.
“We still had 200 or 300 fans show up, still throwing salmon on the ice, still cheering us on as we played,” Worlton said.
The coach said one of the many tough parts of going inactive is this team is built for the future.
“We talked about going young and finding the type of kids that want to be here,” Worlton said. “We wanted good citizens that would volunteer as much as they have in the community.
“The travel is hard, but they never complained about the travel. Our scouting staff did a great job of locating those types of players and this summer our plan was to add to it and get better. It’s frustrating because we took our lumps this year.”
The Bears will have just five players age out after this season. All of the seven defensemen on the roster could have returned, and four of the seven could have played at least two more years. There are also six forwards and a goalie who could have played two more years.
The coach also said that recruiting for next season had gotten easier, due to a changing direction on the ice and the great way the players are treated in the community.
“We’re not going to see the fruits of our labor, and the fans won’t be rewarded for continuing to support us,” Worlton said. “They won’t have the satisfaction of winning on a consistent basis.
“That sucks, because we have great fans.”
In the short term, Worlton said the goal is to be sharper mentally. Particularly, he said the power play has struggled mightily, even giving up three short-handed goals in a weekend sweep at the hands of the Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets.
“It’s the hockey business,” Worlton said. “It’s nobody’s fault. We want to continue to get better and win games at home for the next four weeks.”
Bears notes: Goalie Robbie Goor and defenseman Christopher Lipe played at the NAHL Top Prospects Tournament this week. While neither have made a college commitment yet, Worlton said both fielded many questions during the event and he hopes something will shake out at the Division I level for both of them.