After finishing with the worst record in the North American Hockey League in 2014-15, the Kenai River Brown Bears could hardly wait for next season to arrive in order to scrape the previous one from memory.
Alaska summers, which are over before you know it, can help with that.
With dip nets still in the water, mosquitoes still in the air and the Peninsula Oilers in the midst of a pennant chase, the Brown Bears will have their Main Selection Camp in Minnesota from Wednesday through July 26.
And main camp isn’t the only sign of the impending season, with the NAHL on Monday releasing a schedule including a division realignment and home opener scheduled for Sept. 11. The Bears also have hired a new assistant coach to replace Rory Dynan.
The Brown Bears remain in the Midwest Divsion, but that division now features the Fairbanks Ice Dogs, Coulee Region (Wisconsin) Chill, Janesville (Wisconsin) Jets, Minnesota Wilderness and Springfield (Illinois) Jr. Blues.
The division has some of the top teams in the league from recent seasons. The Ice Dogs won the Robertson Cup two seasons ago, while the Wilderness were the league champs last season.
Also last season, the Jets set a league record for points by going 49-9-2 for 100 points. The Chill were no pushovers, either, taking the first two games of a playoff series against the Wilderness before the Minnesota squad rebounded with three straight wins.
“It’s going to be a great challenge, one we’re looking forward to,” said Kenai River head coach Geoff Beauparlant, who returns for his third year at the helm of the Brown Bears. “We know it’s not going to be easy with any of those teams.”
As usual, the league will be using an unbalanced division schedule. That means the Bears will play Fairbanks 16 times, Janesville and Springfield eight times, and Minnesota and Coulee Region four times.
Beauparlant, a former Fairbanks assistant, knows his squad will have to be better against his former club. Fairbanks was 13-3 against the Bears in 2013-14 and 14-2 last season.
“It’s an inner-state rivalry and one we look forward to competing in every year,” Beauparlant said. “They’ve had the best of us the last couple of years. We look forward to turning the tide this year.”
The Bears also will have home-and-away series against each team from the four-team East Division — the Aston (Pennsylvania) Rebels, Johnstown (Pennsylvania) Tomahawks, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (Pennsylvania) Knights and New Jersey Titans. The Rebels, Knights and Titans are all first-year teams in the league.
The schedule has all Friday and Saturday night home games except for two Sunday afternoon contests against the Ice Dogs. Beauparlant said one of those games will be specially oriented toward kids.
“We want to try and get more people in the seats,” Beauparlant said. “We’re working on a kids club and birthday party announcements.
“We want to target kids and make it a great experience for them, as well as our adult fans.”
Beauparlant also said the team wants to be even more of a part of the community than it has been in the past. But he also said it will be important to win more games in order to get fans in the seats.
“Our goal is to contend and not have a repeat of what happened last year with our record,” he said. “We’ve spent a lot of time restructuring and rebuilding from within, and we hope to see the results of that this fall.”
One good sign for the Bears is that 12 veterans are expected in main camp this week. That’s quite a contrast to the four veterans that were in main camp last season.
“It’s a big difference having three times as many veterans,” Beauparlant said. “That doesn’t guarantee anything, but it’s a better starting point.
“Experience in the league is invaluable.”
The coach also said the poor record last season should give those veterans plenty of motivation for this season.
Two veterans that Beauparlant said will most likely not be in camp are Wasilla’s Tanner Schachle and Colton Fletcher.
The Brown Bears announced the following on their Twitter account on Wednesday: “The Kenai River Brown Bears have placed forwards Tanner Schachle and Colton Fletcher on indefinite suspension pending review by management.”
Beauparlant said he won’t have more to say on the matter until it is resolved, which will most likely be after training camp.
He said putting the suspension out on Twitter is part of the Bears’ new effort to keep the community up to date on what is happening with players.
Although the Bears have plenty of continuity with players and the head coach, the assistants will be new.
Beauparlant said the organization and last year’s assistant, Rory Dynan, mutually agreed to part ways.
“We talk about fit with a player and I don’t think it was the right fit as a coaching staff,” Beauparlant said. “In many ways, that’s my fault. I should have done more to see if it would have been a good fit.”
The new assistant is Andrew Whiteside, a recent graduate of Niagara University in New York — the university where former Bears player Albin Karlsson now skates.
Whiteside didn’t play hockey at Niagara, but served as a volunteer assistant all four years.
Beauparlant said he likes Whiteside’s youth — he’s still 22 — and his recent experience with the college game, which will give Bears players a better idea of what to expect at the next level.
“As much video as I enjoy doing, he’s a whiz at video,” Beauparlant said. “Not only day-to-day video, but preparing video for colleges.”
Paul Walker, an intern last season, has been promoted to second assistant. His area of focus will be statistical analysis and game-day operations.
Beauparlant said Whiteside did a good job of organizing the alumni skate Friday. He added that the 7th annual Stanley Ford Brown Bears Classic on Saturday was a success, with 16 teams playing in the event.