The news that the Kenai River Brown Bears will take up inactive status at the end of their 10th season has rocked everyone associated with the organization, and the results have been obvious on the ice.
Since rumors of the move started flying on Feb. 17 and 18 during a series at the Springfield (Illinois) Jr. Blues, the Bears have lost eight straight to run their losing streak to 13 games. But in those eight games, the Bears have struggled to remain competitive, with just one of those losses coming by a goal. In the first five losses of the skid, four came by two goals or less.
When the Topeka (Kansas) RoadRunners come to town for a 7 p.m. game today and 7:30 p.m. games Friday and Saturday at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex, Kenai River will look to get back on track. The Bears have five home games left, and eight overall.
“We were winning or competing in every game, then since the announcement about the team, we’ve definitely gone the other way,” Kenai River head coach Jeff Worlton said. “As a coaching staff, we’re trying to keep them motivated and looking toward the future.”
The Bears enter the series at 10-40-2-0. Even when inactive status was announced, the Bears were out of the playoff race. But with just five players aging out after this season, the players had next season to build toward. Now, all those players face an uncertain future.
Worlton stresses that the players have not quit.
“We’re still blocking shots,” he said. “The goaltenders are still making saves. I do not think the guys have quit at all.
“Still, there’s that adversity on top of adversity. Sometimes it’s just too much to carry.”
If this period has shown Worlton anything, it’s the character of the Brown Bears supporters. The team had the worst record in the league the past two seasons, and now fans have had to deal with this season.
“The fans are just unbelievable,” Worlton said. “Win or lose, they come and don’t wear bags on their heads.
“Their dedication is something I don’t know I’ve ever seen before in all my years in youth hockey, high school hockey, junior hockey, pro hockey and coaching college. The team is aware of it, and we want to give the fans something to feel proud about in the last couple of games.”
While the Bears are last in the North American Hockey League Midwest Division, Topeka is last in the South Division. But the RoadRunners own 5-2 and 6-2 victories over the Bears in early December.
“They’re a big team,” Worlton said. “They’re skilled, and they can put the puck in the net.”
The RoadRunners have six players with Division I commitments. They have given up the third most goals in the league, but are 17th in the league in scoring. The Bears have given up the second-most goals, and scored the second-fewest goals.
Kenai River’s biggest problem of late has been the power play. Friday, the Bears were 0 for 1 with the extra man and gave up two short-handed goals. Saturday, the Bears were 0 for 3 and gave up another shortie, tying the league lead for short-handers at 11.
After being in the middle of the pack for a time this season, Kenai River now has the third-worst power play in the league. Worlton said the struggle to score on the power play has led to the short-handed goals.
“When you go from 13th in the league to near the bottom of the barrel, it’s hard not to force it,” Worlton said.
The Bears have no injuries heading into the series, but defensemen Alex Dingeldein will serve the last game to a two-game suspension today. Dingeldein dropped the gloves with under five minutes to play in Friday’s game.