John Bryan, Co-Director of Sports Science, Strength and Conditioning for the Kenai River Brown Bears, talks with Andy Larson as he cool down on the bike after a game at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska, on Friday, March 29, 2024. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

John Bryan, Co-Director of Sports Science, Strength and Conditioning for the Kenai River Brown Bears, talks with Andy Larson as he cool down on the bike after a game at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska, on Friday, March 29, 2024. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

‘The right thing to do’

On mostly volunteer basis, couple overhauls nutrition, strength and conditioning program for Bears

Quinoa. Vegetables. A warmup intended to get Kenai River Brown Bears players to smile. Periodization, whatever that means. Regular texts asking the skaters how they are feeling.

Old-school hockey, it is not.

And for that, blame Candace Nakagawa and John Bryan, co-directors of sports science, strength and conditioning for the Brown Bears.

Over the past couple seasons, Nakagawa and Bryan have worked with the Brown Bears, led by head coach Taylor Shaw and general manager Nate Kiel, to overhaul the way the team does strength, conditioning and nutrition.

Blame Nakagawa and Bryan, if you want, for veering from old-school concepts, but while you’re at it, credit them for a few other things.

Like no soft tissue injuries in the last two seasons. Of course, there have been collision injuries, concussions and broken hands. This is still hockey. But there haven’t been things like groin pulls.

“That’s rare,” said Kiel, who has been involved with the Bears for all of their 18 seasons, mostly as general manager. “It’s more common to have that, certainly in years past.

“So we’ve seen a real improvement in that regard and we’re learning all the time and getting better.”

Also, make sure to note that the meal program implemented by Nakagawa and Bryan this season has meant the players have been able to maintain their weight.

The meal program started this season and Owen Hanson, who is in his second season with the Bears, has noticed a big difference. Even if it’s meant eating a little quinoa.

“The meals are just keeping us up to date and keeping us from hitting that plateau,” Hanson said. “Last year, we hit that plateau. Guys were losing a lot of weight.

“I think the average weight we lost as a group was 7 pounds. And now we’re right on peak.”

And while blame is being thrown around, blame Nakagawa and Bryan for the two not being able to watch home games from the stands this season.

They are compensated by the Bears for two training sessions per week, but have added so much more to the program they will hit 1,200 volunteer hours for this season.

That means every home game finds them in a conference room periodically checking an internet feed of the game, and not in the stands. On game nights, they are typically at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex from 5 p.m. to 12:30 a.m.

“John and Candace are an instrumental piece of what we do here and the evolution since we’ve come up here,” Shaw said. “They’re a reason we’ve had success up here.

“All the work they do is thankless, spending hours at the rink every night. They’re going to be here after we leave tonight. And they’ll be back tomorrow doing the same thing.”

California dreamin’

Bryan and Nakagawa moved to the central Kenai Peninsula in August 2020 from Los Angeles.

Nakagawa is from Los Angeles, but had been away from the area for almost 20 years while working for Doctors Without Borders and living in New York.

She had a fluke accident in Los Angeles resulting in a broken wrist and ankle.

That kept her in town long enough to take a yoga teacher training class and meet Bryan in that class in 2018.

Bryan is originally from the United Kingdom and had lived in Los Angeles for 30 years.

“We were chatting on as we do, and we were kind of talking about getting out of LA,” Bryan said. “I think we’d both done our bit.”

Nakagawa said she never intended on staying in Los Angeles. She’d been coming to the central peninsula for over 20 years to sport fish, so the two decided to move here.

It didn’t take them long to start doing Alaska things. In September 2022, the couple had Nakagawa’s sister marry them without notice. Nakagawa’s sister had come over wearing fish boots and carrying a fish.

“We handed her a piece of paper,” Nakagawa said. “My parents were on Zoom and I had a couple of friends on Zoom.

“She looked at the paper and looked at us and just started crying.”

One thing leads to another

How Nakagawa and Bryan ended up doing so much work for the Brown Bears springs from a series of small-town coincidences.

The couple runs Empyrean Health and Wellness, which provides a wide range of general fitness and athlete development services. Bryan said a lot of the business takes place remotely with clients from Los Angeles.

Nakagawa has certifications in yoga, pilates, nutrition and weight lifting. Bryan has certifications in triathlon training, cycling training, functional breathing, yoga and weight lifting.

Nakagawa and Bryan came to know Logan Parks and Pete Dickinson at the All-American Training Center by working with some wrestlers there.

In October 2022, the Brown Bears lost their trainer at the All American Training Center. Parks and Dickinson asked Nakagawa and Bryan if they wanted to take over training the Brown Bears.

In another coincidence, Nakagawa quickly met Matt Pyhala, team trainer and chiropractor for the Bears. Pyhala is on the board at the Kenai Watershed Forum and Nakagawa took a job there.

Ideas meet reality

With their extensive background in health and wellness, it didn’t take many training sessions for Nakagawa and Bryan to brainstorm ways to help the Bears.

“Our minds just started spinning, going, ‘Well, why aren’t they doing this? Why aren’t they having this?’” Nakagawa said.

First off, the couple had to convince Shaw and the coaching staff there was reason to change.

Bryan and Nakagawa know plenty about health and wellness. They also are big hockey fans. Bryan still has LA Kings season tickets, while Nakagawa tells stories of her mother dressing up to go to Kings games.

But none of that meant Shaw had to trust them to bring changes to the way the Brown Bears do training.

“If we don’t all evolve with the game, we’re dead in the water, right?” Shaw said. “For John and Candace, and for us, it was a lot of learning when they came into the fold last year.

“It was a lot of trying to understand their side — the analytic side, the metrics and those types of things.”

There was also the fact that ideas cost money. Bryan studied the methods of the Kings and the Fargo (North Dakota) Force of the United States Hockey League.

He said the challenge was being inventive and coming up with a Kenai version of the expensive methods of those more wealthy programs.

“We try to do things other organizations do, but we do it on a shoestring,” Bryan said.

Learning what periodization means

Shaw and Kiel bought into the new ideas brought by Nakagawa and Bryan.

“The first step was just getting them into formalized training, where there was a setup for where we started to periodize the training based on energy demand,” Bryan said. “If they played three games in the week, we’re not going to train them on a Monday.

“And if we do train them on a Monday, we’re going to take a different approach.”

This season, Bryan started using TeamBlder, which is strength and conditioning software, to program workouts for the team.

Bryan can program the lifts and exercises he wants players to do. The program also shows a video of how to do each exercise.

Bryan and Nakagawa said the goal is keeping the players fit, healthy and ready to play.

In November 2022, Bryan said he used his contacts to get a free version of RockDaisy, which is a way of keeping track of how the players are feeling using questions texted to players.

Even using a basic version last year, Bryan said he and Nakagawa were able to detect early signs of a stomach flu going through the team and were able to separate the players and stop the number of players getting the flu at 12.

Bryan said the Bears are the only North American Hockey League team that uses RockDaisy.

This year, Bryan has customized RockDaisy and now asks how the players slept each night and gives them a body map to show any potential injuries. After each game, each player gets a text that asks how hard the game was on a scale of 1 to 10.

“If they go to a Division I school, they’ll do something similar,” Bryan said.

Bryan and Nakagawa also started a 15-minute pregame warmup last season that started with static stretches and went to sprints, finishing with a game designed to make the players smile.

Before Friday’s game, the players ended the warmup by forming a circle and putting billet parent Nick Symonds and his son, Easton, in the center. The Symonds took turns playfully crashing into the players.

“I think it makes a huge difference,” Hanson said. “It gets us ready. We’ve been preaching having a hot start for the first five minutes, because that can make a big difference in the game.”

Continuing to evolve

Nakagawa and Bryan said they are on a three-year plan with the Bears.

While the duo said they were happy with the changes made in the first season, they said the first season was really more of a fact-finding mission.

“The boys started to have the buy-in in what we were trying to do and we were able to convince them there was a different way,” Nakagawa said. “In my opinion, we already came in too late in the season last year.”

Year two was about beginning programs to address deficiencies Nakagawa and Bryan saw in year one.

Before this season, the players were in contact with Nakagawa and Bryan all summer to check in on training plans.

A procedure was also put in place to contact medical professionals in the case of injury and illness, and have access to things like insurance cards for players.

Drawing on what teams like the LA Kings do, Nakagawa and Bryan also decided to implement a pregame workout for players that are not in the lineup that night.

For 40 minutes before Friday’s game, Nakagawa took Carter Gillen, John Ross and AJ Reyelts through a workout that included biking and movements with resistance bands.

Gillen said nobody likes to get scratched from the lineup, but the workouts help.

“I think it’s all about the process from player to player,” Gillen said. “If you stick with your process every day, results will come.”

Bryan gave Kiel and the Bears credit for buying the bikes, exercise equipment and ice baths for the pregame workout and for a cooldown for all players after the game.

If players are injured during the game, Bryan said the cooldown session is a great time to start treating the injury right away.

Feeding the Bears

The biggest change this season is the meal program for the team after home games and on Wednesday nights.

“Last year, right before the holidays, we saw a dip in performance,” Nakagawa said. “We really couldn’t quantify it until the second half of the season, which is when we started weighing them.

“A light bulb went on. We saw that they were getting drained in their faces. We’re wondering, where are they as far as weight is concerned?”

Nakagawa said players would lose 8 pounds in a weekend. Some of that was water, but not all of it.

Bryan said subsequent testing showed players can go through 3,500 to 5,000 calories in a game.

Taking in this data, Shaw came to Nakagawa and Bryan last summer with an idea: What if we were to feed the players a nice meal after games to make sure they replaced those calories in a nutritional manner?

Bryan said the duo’s response was: “That’s funny. We were thinking the same thing.”

Thus began “Feed the Bears.” Bryan and Nakagawa prepare the food for the meals at a cost of about $4 a head, which is paid for by the Bears.

Nakagawa said she has had to balance giving the nutrition dictated by science with making meals the players will actually eat.

Friday’s dinner was chicken alfredo, a favorite of defenseman Jacob Margarit. It came with pasta, salad, grilled vegetables and cheesy garlic bread. The team also got “victory brownies” for winning its previous game.

“It’s definitely been a huge benefit to help us keep our weight up, so you’re not completely losing weight throughout the season,” Gillen said. “It lets you keep your nutrition levels steady throughout the week and after games.”

Joe Dibble, head coach and general manager of the Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets, was in town to face the Bears this weekend.

Normally, the opposing team doesn’t get in on the postgame meal, but Bryan said there was so much extra food that the Jets got some food in the spirit of Easter.

Dibble has been in the NAHL, except for a few quick breaks, since 2007. He said such a meal program is rare.

“It’s important because, especially at this point in the season, these kids are burning so many calories,” he said. “We’re running them ragged in 60-minute hockey games and practices and flights and bus rides.

“So to have it set up in a buffet line after the game for our guys was phenomenal.”

Dibble would love to see a similar meal program for both home and visiting teams become the standard in the Midwest Division and across the league.

Nakagawa and Bryan also have been getting video from guest speakers from pro and college teams to discuss topics like nutrition, strength and conditioning, and motivation. Those videos are shown at the Wednesday meal for the Bears.

The Bears also have been sharing those videos with opposing teams and Dibble loved that idea as well.

“I know we’re battling each other on game nights, right?” Dibble said. “Ultimately for our organizations, it’s the player safety, nutrition and health that’s No. 1.”

All this stuff is great, but …

Time to address the elephant in the room.

While the Brown Bears have successfully implemented these programs off the ice, the team hasn’t had the same success on the ice.

Kenai River had an 18-game losing streak during the season and is currently sitting in last place in the Midwest Division, though the Bears were recently able to roll up a five-game winning streak.

For Nakagawa and Bryan, it was not hard to maintain confidence in the program during the losing streak.

“We have some basic tenants. Eat right. Sleep right. Do their workouts,” Bryan said. “If we keep sticking to the course, we know that hockey is a cyclical game.

“We’re basically doing the right things as long as they’re not getting injured and as long as we’re not injuring them.”

Shaw said there were definitely conversations about all the new programs during the losing streak. In the end, everybody decided the new programs were the right thing to do and they were staying.

“It shouldn’t be a punishment to take it away based on results or the way we are playing,” he said. “We’re trying to push the needle forward here.

“Regardless of the results, this is what we do here. And I think it was important for me, especially, to make sure we kept it.”

A process for life

Nakagawa and Bryan said it has been extremely valuable working with the team because duo has learned so much.

One thing Nakagawa and Bryan have had to learn is how to accept that players are not going to eagerly adopt everything the duo suggests.

Bryan said it’s a different dynamic with his paid clients. He said when people are paying for a program, it highly increases the likelihood that they will do it.

Even if the clients completely ignore Bryan’s program, he said he still gets some money out of the deal.

Initially, Nakagawa and Bryan were frustrated when players would not do everything the duo suggested.

Then they saw each player adapt to what they were being given in an individual fashion and realized there was no identical, perfect formula for everybody.

“We’re giving them all these tools for them to come up with a process so when they go (Division I) or even beyond that, they’re going to be used to it,” Nakagawa said.

The duo said that even has implications beyond hockey.

“All we’re trying to do is give them good life skills,” Bryan said.

Both Gillen and Hanson have learned to see value in the process.

“I just try to stay positive and do the right things and the results will come,” Gillen said. “If you start to get negative and the process changes, or the guys start losing the congruence that keeps them together, you see even worse results.”

Hanson also said it’s been valuable to see how important it is to stick to the right process in the face of tough results.

“We’re not only focused on making great hockey players, we’re making great men,” Hanson said. “You’ve got to come in and check and do your job. Facing adversity is always a big thing that guys will learn playing junior hockey.”

The future

Only three teams in the NAHL have been around for as long or longer than the Brown Bears — the Springfield (Illinois) Jr. Blues, the Fairbanks Ice Dogs and the Bismarck (North Dakota) Bobcats.

Kiel said the Bears have been able to keep operating in one of the league’s smallest markets due to volunteers like Nakagawa and Bryan.

“If you look at the broadcast booth to the checkpoints to all the different positions we have, it’s about 35 people on any given night putting on a Brown Bears game,” Kiel said. “For the most part, they’re all volunteers.

“That’s pretty cool. It’s hard to find volunteers. It’s hard to find paid people these days.”

Nakagawa and Bryan echo those volunteers when asked why they do it — community, hopes to be a part of a player reaching the NHL and youth development.

And Nakagawa and Bryan, like the other volunteers, make Kenai River a more attractive destination for players.

“We’ve already heard from other players and other coaches out there. They’re impressed with what we have going on here,” Kiel said of the new programs started by Nakagawa and Bryan.

But with volunteers, there are always challenges. Bryan said year three of the program will be about sustainability.

The irony of the duo feeding the Bears on Friday was that Nakagawa never had time to finish her own meal.

“I’ll finish the meal next week when the season is done,” she said.

As Bryan was cleaning up hoping to leave the sports complex a bit after midnight, he said, “I have a 7:30 client tomorrow morning online.”

Nakagawa and Bryan wouldn’t mind getting to watch a game from the stands again. They also wouldn’t mind spending more time in Europe.

“We need help,” Bryan said. “That’s the lesson we’ve learned this year.”

Kiel said the organization has every intention of keeping the programs going when Nakagawa and Bryan take a step back. As player Luke Hause recently told Nakagawa about the future of the programs, “It’s the right thing to do.”

The general manager said keeping programs going is always the challenge in an organization so heavily reliant on volunteers, but the Brown Bears have managed so far.

“It’s the community involvement. People dig it. They’re excited about it,” Kiel said, basking in the glow of a 10-5 victory Friday that marked only the second time the franchise has hit the 10-goal mark. “That’s what keeps me going.”

John Bryan and Candace Nakagawa, Co-Directors of Sports Science, Strength and Conditioning, clean up the kitchen after preparing a meal for the Kenai River Brown Bears at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska, on Friday, March 29, 2024. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

John Bryan and Candace Nakagawa, Co-Directors of Sports Science, Strength and Conditioning, clean up the kitchen after preparing a meal for the Kenai River Brown Bears at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska, on Friday, March 29, 2024. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

William Esterbrooks of the Kenai River Brown Bears eats a postgame meal with teammates at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska, on Friday, March 29, 2024. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

William Esterbrooks of the Kenai River Brown Bears eats a postgame meal with teammates at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska, on Friday, March 29, 2024. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Candace Nakagawa, Co-Director of Sports Science, Strength and Conditioning for the Kenai River Brown Bears, helps Joseph Yoon with a sore foot during a cooldown session after a game at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska, on Friday, March 29, 2024. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Candace Nakagawa, Co-Director of Sports Science, Strength and Conditioning for the Kenai River Brown Bears, helps Joseph Yoon with a sore foot during a cooldown session after a game at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska, on Friday, March 29, 2024. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Candace Nakagawa, Co-Director of Sports Science, Strength and Conditioning for the Kenai River Brown Bears, prepares a postgame meal for the team at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska, on Friday, March 29, 2024. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Candace Nakagawa, Co-Director of Sports Science, Strength and Conditioning for the Kenai River Brown Bears, prepares a postgame meal for the team at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska, on Friday, March 29, 2024. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

John Ross, AJ Reyelts and Carter Gillen of the Kenai River Brown Bears work out at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska, on Friday, March 29, 2024. The three were scratches for the night’s game, but still had to do a full workout before the game. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

John Ross, AJ Reyelts and Carter Gillen of the Kenai River Brown Bears work out at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska, on Friday, March 29, 2024. The three were scratches for the night’s game, but still had to do a full workout before the game. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Nick Symonds, a billet parent for the Brown Bears, helps the team finish its warmup at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska, on Friday, March 29, 2024. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Nick Symonds, a billet parent for the Brown Bears, helps the team finish its warmup at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska, on Friday, March 29, 2024. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Candace Nakagawa and John Bryan, Co-Directors of Sports Science, Strength and Conditioning for the Kenai River Brown Bears, run a warmup session at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska, on Friday, March 29, 2024. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Candace Nakagawa and John Bryan, Co-Directors of Sports Science, Strength and Conditioning for the Kenai River Brown Bears, run a warmup session at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska, on Friday, March 29, 2024. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Joseph Yoon and Carter Gillen warm up prior to a game at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska, on Friday, March 29, 2024. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Joseph Yoon and Carter Gillen warm up prior to a game at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska, on Friday, March 29, 2024. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Joel Hanson and Carter McCormick lead the food line Friday, March 29, 2024, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Joseph Yoon and Carter Gillen warm up prior to a game at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska, on Friday, March 29, 2024. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

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