With just seven games left in the season and any hope of the playoffs long since evaporated, Kenai River Brown Bears head coach Jeff Worlton is trying to win games this year, but he’s also trying to put in place the building blocks for a more successful future.
The Bears are 3-47-3 heading into 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday games at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex against the New Jersey Titans, who lead the North American Hockey League East Division with a 32-19-3 record.
Kenai River will have the worst record in the league for a second consecutive season and is threatening to take over the top spot for most losses in NAHL history, currently held by the Odessa (Texas) Jackalopes with a mark of 6-51-3 in 2012-13.
Since replacing Geoff Beauparlant on Jan. 10, Worlton has gone 1-16-2 but has also almost completely remade the hockey staff and gone with a roster without any players aging out of junior hockey after this season, all in order to make an improvement next season.
“We’re getting the ship going the right way, or what we feel is the right way,” Worlton said. “It’s always exciting to get a fresh start and to bring in kids who want to be here, want to work hard and want to win.”
The new director of scouting is Rich Michalowski, who served in a similar role for Worlton with the Breezy Point (Minnesota) North Stars of the Tier III NA3HL.
Michalowski also scouts for the Dubuque (Iowa) Fighting Saints of the Tier I United States Hockey League and comes with the recommendation of Oliver David, former head coach of the Tier II Bears and now the associate head coach and assistant general manager for the Saints.
“Rich has proven to consistently identify difference makers, and has demonstrated a will to match his skill,” David said in a Kenai River team press release. “Rich is an excellent communicator and an even more impressive listener. Those are important traits for a team builder.”
Worlton said Dubuque is just two hours from his house in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. The coach said he has been fortunate enough to help out at Dubuque’s tryout camp the past five seasons.
“Rich is a great guy who has been around hockey at many different levels a long time and wants to win,” Worlton said. “He wants to make Kenai great and he wants to move up the ladder.
“He’s eager to seize the opportunity and we’re lucky to have him.”
Michalowski is based in Pittsburgh. Another scout for the Saints, Mark Plantery, is based in Chicago and will also scout for the Bears.
Chris Hedlund will scout for the Bears out of Minnesota, Sean Coffman will scout out of Michigan and Chris Piepenburg will scout out of Colorado.
Worlton said the thing connecting all the scouts on staff is work ethic.
“We went with guys that are maybe Tier III guys, maybe not as well known, but who are going to work hard to make a name for themselves,” he said. “They’re willing to go to the rink on Saturday instead of going to the lake. They’re willing to pay the price to help the team win and not get the credit.”
Peter Emery, a former player for Worlton, will serve as the goaltending coach and also do some scouting. Emery lives in Minneapolis and has met the team twice on the road this season. Next season, he will come up to Alaska every month to month and a half.
“He’s a hard worker and a blue-collar kid,” Worlton said. “He’s been blue collar his whole life.”
The previous staff tendered forward Zach Shapiro and defenseman Alex Armstrong from the high-power Detroit Compuware program, as well as Soldotna product Preston Weeks. A tender gives the Bears exclusive NAHL rights to a player.
Weeks, a defenseman, has already appeared in four games for the Bears and will close out the season with the team.
“He’s a player that has a bright, bright future,” Worlton said. “I think he’s a Division I hockey player. He’s a good grab for us.”
The new scouting staff has also already tendered four new players.
David Mitchell is a forward and assistant captain for the Rocky Mountain Roughriders U18 squad of the NAPHL. In 62 games, he produced 17 goals and 22 assists.
Chase Sriprajittichai is a forward and captain for Gilmour Academy Prep of the Midwest Prep Hockey League. He has 18 goals and 34 assists in 55 games.
Brendan Cherwalk is a defenseman for Victory Honda U18, another powerhouse program.
“We’re finding kids that have won a lot of games, and that want to win,” Worlton said.
And just like with his scouting staff, Worlton said work ethic is essential in his players.
“In my opinion, you want to find hard-working guys that can put the puck in the net, and then teach them defense,” he said.
The Bears also have used their NA3HL tender on goalie Christian Sanzottera, who played for Worlton at Breezy Point. Sanzottera is 7-4 with an .897 save percentage for the North Stars this season.
In putting together the pieces for next season, Worlton is selling the uniqueness of living in Alaska, and using elbow grease to assure prospective players that wins are coming to the currently struggling franchise.
“People are always going to judge a book by its cover, but we’re also being very aggressive, burning up the phone lines, working extremely hard,” Worlton said. “We’ve got a great scouting staff at the rinks that works hard enough to overcome anything.”
If the Bears want hope a winning roster can be assembled quickly, they need to look no further than across the ice this weekend.
The Titans are an expansion club with the fifth and 17th top goalies in the league by save percentage, and a deep roster. None of the New Jersey players are amongst the league leaders in scoring, but nine have 29 points or more.
“They are very deep. They keep coming, and their goaltending is really good,” Worlton said.
Jack Berry, fifth in the league by save percentage, is committed to the University of Wisconsin — one of six Division I commits for the Titans. The Bears have one in Jake Hartje.
“It’s a tall order, but we’re playing closer and closer to the right way,” Worlton said. “We’re hoping Friday and Saturday is another step toward that.”