The Kenai River Brown Bears season of rebuilding is over. The question remains whether the fans will get to see the finished product.
The Brown Bears wrapped up the North American Hockey League season Saturday night at the Big Dipper Ice Arena in Fairbanks with a weekend sweep at the hands of the Fairbanks Ice Dogs. Kenai River lost 3-2 on Thursday, 7-3 on Friday and 5-1 on Saturday.
The Bears finished the year at 12-46-2-0, last in the NAHL Midwest Division, which has been clinched by the Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets. Fairbanks finished the night with nine consecutive victories to wrap up a 33-24-2-1 campaign and sit two points ahead of the third-place Minnesota Magicians, who have two games in hand.
With the announcement coming in February that the Bears would become inactive next year with nothing decided beyond that, the push to save the team is on, led by Sterling resident Steve Stuber. The goal was to raise $300,000 by April 15 and to pack the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex with 2,500 fans for last weekend’s pair of home games against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights in efforts to show the community’s support for the team. Ultimately, the two games saw crowds of 1,113 and 1,236, among the largest in the 10-year history of the team.
Saturday’s game was the last one of the season for the Bears, and perhaps forever.
Kenai River head coach Jeff Worlton said the Ice Dogs showed class in honoring their southern brethren Saturday night, with Fairbanks general manager Rob Proffitt wearing a Kenai River jersey onto center ice before the game and auctioning it off for a grand sum.
“The crowd was great, they supported us and they bought our jersey,” Worlton said.
Worlton also thanked the oldest class of players on the team, the 1996 birth years that include Jonathan Marzec, Jonas Warman, Ryan Mezera, Evan Butcher and Robbie Goor. Lucas Carroll also is leaving a year early for college.
The team will host a season-ending barbecue Monday at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex from 4 to 7 p.m., with a skate session inside from 6:45 to 7:45 p.m.
In Saturday’s game, the Ice Dogs got going quickly with a goal 70 seconds after the opening puck drop. Nolan Schaeffer and Luke Orysiuk set up a shot by Hampus Eriksson that found the netting past Kenai River goalie Goor.
The Bears answered with a game-tying strike from Christopher Lipe at the 4:26 mark of the second period that deflected off the stick of Ethan Stewart.
“We got our legs going and Lipe took a shot from the point and beat the goalie clean,” Worlton said. “After that it was just a couple mistakes on our part.”
Grayson Gavin slotted home the go-ahead goal with 5:05 left in the second period, and after Kenai River’s Carter Wade was benched for an elbowing call, Fairbanks scored on the ensuing power play to push the lead to 3-1. The Ice Dogs scored twice more in the third period to ice the victory.
Worlton said after the team was outshot 26-11 in the first two periods combined, he saw the same old fight that has defined the Bears all season, but like many other games, early goals allowed made it difficult for the team to climb back out of.
“Our team this year never quit, we competed and battled,” he said. “That shows it today. We did the best we could to make it a game.”
In Friday’s game, Fairbanks grabbed a 2-0 lead in the first period, then pushed it to 4-1 after two. The Ice Dogs then sealed up their eighth consecutive win with three goals in the third period. Worlton said another slow start doomed the Bears in Friday’s contest, and a 13-8 shots advantage in the third period couldn’t erase a three-goal deficit.
“It’s the same thing, we were inconsistent and not very good at the start,” Worlton said. “The third period, we played well and got the puck to the net and did some good things, but it was too little, too late.”
Bauer Neudecker scored twice for Fairbanks and Erkka Vanska chipped in three assists. Josh Benson warded off 25 of 28 shots on goal for the Ice Dogs. Robbie Goor stopped 35 of 41 shots between the pipes for Kenai River.
Nick Rogers opened the scoring for Fairbanks just over six minutes into the game, and Neudecker tallied his first of the night just over six minutes after that to put the Dogs up 2-0.
Kenai River’s Ryan Mezera scored early in the second period with help from Tyler Rock to cut the gap in half, but Benton Maass answered at the 9:25 mark of the frame, and Samuel Ruffin pushed Fairbanks’ lead to 4-1 just 32 seconds later.
In the first two periods combined, the Ice Dogs outshot the Bears 34-15.
“If I knew how, I would’ve fixed it by now,” Worlton said of the Brown Bears streakiness. “It’s one of those things, it has to do with our maturity, and learning how to deal with adversity.”
A Connor Fedorek strike near the end of a power play 3:41 into the third period again cut the Ice Dogs’ lead in half, leaving the Bears behind 4-2, but Neudecker responded 51 seconds later, adding to Kenai River’s woes in the defensive zone.
“It’s just repeat mode, it’s frustrating to watch,” he said. “I just watched an entire game where one team didn’t get an icing call the entire game.”
at Big Dipper Ice Arena, Fairbanks
Ice Dogs 7, Brown Bears 3
Kenai River 0 1 2 — 3
Fairbanks 2 2 3 — 7
First period — 1. Fairbanks, Rogers (Vanska, Chilton), 6:08; 2. Fairbanks, Neudecker (Orysiuk, Eriksson), 12:19. Penalties — Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Second period — 3. Kenai River, Mezera (Rock), 4:26; 4. Fairbanks, Maass (Kero, Vanska), 9:25; 5. Fairbanks, Ruffin (Kero, Orysiuk), 9:57. Penalties — none.
Third period — 6. Kenai River, Fedorek (Lipe, Vincent), PP, 3:41; 7. Fairbanks, Neudecker (Haider, Eriksson), 4:32; 8. Kenai River, Stewart (Sterne), 6:49; 9. Fairbanks, Haider (Neudecker, Vanska), 12:14; 10. Fairbanks, Hewines (Stampohar, Chilton), EN, 18:36. Penalties — Fairbanks 2 for 4:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Shots on goal — Kenai River 10-5-13—28; Fairbanks 19-15-8—42.
Goalies — Kenai River, Goor (41 shots, 35 saves); Fairbanks, Benson (28 shots, 25 saves).
Power plays — Kenai River 0 for 0; Fairbanks 0 for 0.
at Big Dipper Ice Arena, Fairbanks
Ice Dogs 5, Brown Bears 1
Kenai River 0 1 0 — 1
Fairbanks 1 2 2 — 5
First period — 1. Fairbanks, Eriksson (Schaeffer, Orysiuk), 1:10. Penalties — Kenai River 3 for 14:00.
Second period — 2. Kenai River, Stewart (Lipe), 4:26; 3. Fairbanks, Gavin (Blueger, Vanska), 14:55; 4. Fairbanks, Cahill (Orysiuk, Mayhew), PP, 17:46. Penalties — Fairbanks 1 for 4:00; Kenai River 1 for 2:00.
Third period — 5. Fairbanks, Schachle (Kero, Ruffin), :28; 6. Fairbanks, Kero (Eriksson, Maass), 15:14. Penalties — Kenai River 2 for 15:00; Fairbanks 4 for 19:00.
Shots on goal — Kenai River 5-6-10—21; Fairbanks 13-13-11—37.
Goalies — Kenai River, Goor (37 shots, 32 saves); Fairbanks, Gordon (21 shots, 20 saves).
Power plays — Kenai River 0 for 3; Fairbanks 1 for 3.