One of the newest faces on the Kenai River Brown Bears roster is actually an old one who has returned to help bring the team back to the playoffs.
Enter Skylar Gutierrez, 18, from Anchorage. Gutierrez arrived in Soldotna last week via a Nov. 25 trade from the Lone Star Brahmas, a nondivisional opponent in the North American Hockey League.
While the Anchorage winger is still in the process of being fully integrated in the Bears’ offense, Gutierrez hopes to be part of the team’s resurgence, which has seen Kenai River race out to 17 wins in the first 27 games of the 60-game NAHL season. The Bears are on pace for 37 wins, which would be a franchise high (the 2011-12 squad tallied 31 wins).
“They’ve been working hard all year, and they’ve been building,” Gutierrez said Wednesday after a team practice. “We’ve got to get back on track this weekend and keep staying on top.”
Gutierrez enters the Kenai River fold after 17 games with the Brahmas this season. He was able to notch six points over that span, but the biggest news he received came before the trade when Gutierrez committed to playing Division I hockey with the University of Alaska Anchorage Seawolves, his hometown college team.
Kenai River head coach Kevin Murdock hopes that bringing in a Div. I player like that will provide another layer to the melting pot of talent the Bears have.
“I think he competes really hard,” Murdock said when asked about Gutierrez’s value. “He plays physical but at the same time he’s still got a really good skillset. He plays fast, makes plays quickly. I think he’s a pretty well-rounded player.”
The wingman had a lot of inspiration to make a career in hockey growing up. His parents Verlana and Moises Sr. supported a large family — Gutierrez has 11 siblings consisting of six brothers and four sisters — and Skylar is the youngest, along with a twin sister.
Two of his older brothers, Moises Jr. and Justin, also played hockey and made it to the competitive ranks. Moises, who spent a chunk of his career in the ECHL (including one game with the Alaska Aces in 2009-10), was drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, and Justin played seven years in the NAHL (two games in 2011-12 with the Wichita Falls Wildcats), Western Hockey League and ECHL.
Gutierrez said watching his two older brothers play in tournaments sparked the desire in him to join them. The brothers spent countless hours, sometimes late nights, out at Ben Boeke Ice Arena and the O’Malley Ice and Sports Center in Anchorage.
“My brother Justin is closest to me in age, so I really looked up to him growing up,” Gutierrez said. “I wanted to be like him, strived to be like him on the ice. He’s the one that really made me fall in love with hockey.”
Skylar, who commands the right wing spot, attended South Anchorage High School for two years, and played just one season with the Wolverines, scoring an astounding 55 points in 25 games. He didn’t play freshman year because the USA Hockey national tournament was held in Anchorage in 2016, and rules dictated that players weren’t allowed to play both leagues at the same time. Guterriez graduated high school last spring with online coursework.
Like any talented puckster, Gutierrez grew his hockey career by making the move down south for the junior leagues. Gutierrez went down to Wisconsin to play in the United States Hockey League with the Madison Capitols, laying the groundwork for his first stint with the Brown Bears.
Gutierrez played six games for the Bears with one assist scored in 2017-18. Gutierrez said that initial experience lifted his game tremendously at age 16.
“It was just good being able to play that young,” he said. “Coming here for two weeks and getting some games in, and knowing how fast the game is and how to prepare for it the following season. It really helped me out a lot playing the game at that speed.”
After playing last season in Madison in the USHL, Gutierrez came back to the NAHL with the Brahmas, but Murdock was keeping an eye on him from afar. Murdock said in his own early days as coach with the Bears, he considered drafting him, but things didn’t work out with the staff.
“We were worried about getting guys that would give us options going into training camp,” Murdock said. “Once he was at Lone Star, after a couple games, I reached out to him. Being from Alaska, he knows a good chunk of the guys on the team.”
When he was acquired by Kenai River early last week, Gutierrez was pleased to head back to Alaska. Gutierrez said his family makes the three-hour drive down to Soldotna to watch him, including last weekend when he made his first appearance in a Brown Bears sweater at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex since March 23, 2018.
“It’s great feeling being back home, playing near my family,” Gutierrez said. “It feels right being here, and I like being here.”
Gutierrez got about a dozen minutes on the ice last Saturday in a 3-1 loss to the Minnesota Magicians, but Murdock said they both know the 60-game season holds a lot more potential with a Bears offense that ranks in the top five in the league in scoring.
“He knows what he’s looking for and how hard he’s got to work to get there,” Murdock said.
The coach also said having a guy with strong Anchorage ties will hopefully boost the flow of Alaskan talent to the organization.
“It’s good for us to have a good Alaska connection of guys that grew up playing each other and with each other,” he said. “Getting them all on the same team and having them be a little more comfortable, it certainly helps.”
Gutierrez said he has good chemistry with many of the current players, notably Soldotna’s Preston Weeks, Anchorage’s Max Helgeson, Wasilla’s Porter Schachle and Eagle River’s Zach Krajnik. Gutierrez said he also has a history with Eagle River’s Brandon Lajoie in youth leagues growing up.
“It’s a super easy transition knowing half the guys,” he said. “I feel welcome right away.”
With his commitment to UAA for the 2020-21 season, Gutierrez said it’s nice to have his future secure for now and looks forward to donning the green and gold jersey for the Seawolves, but for now, he’s all in for a potential postseason run with the Bears, who haven’t been to the NAHL playoffs in six years.
“It’s nice coming from a top team to another top team,” he said. “Bringing what I know, and everyone pushing each other every day in practice to stay on top … It’s a winning culture there, and hopefully we’re building one here.”