Talk about a tale of two seasons.
After finishing dead last in the entire North American Hockey League (NAHL) a year ago - they managed a paltry 12 wins and 30 points - the Kenai River Brown Bears have done an about-face.
Not only did they qualify for the postseason, but, entering this weekend’s three-game series against Dawson Creek, the Brown Bears are only two points shy from doubling last season’s total and two wins away from doubling the most in the program’s history (14 back in 2008-09).
“That said,” noted Brown Bears head coach Oliver David, “we have a lot of work to do to become an elite club.”
Rebuilding the Brown Bears in such short time hasn’t been easy, but it started with a straightforward philosophy. Simply put, David, along with Nate Kiel, the team’s general manager, set out to recruit players who wanted to play in Alaska.
“We’re not for everyone - that needs to be made clear,” said David, noting that the team’s home ice sheet is larger than an Olympic-sized rink while the West Division’s extensive travel trumps the league’s other three divisions by far. “Our daily operation is demanding. From morning workouts to volunteering in the community to on-ice practice and afternoon workouts, we train to be as competitive we can.”
That formula, along with a handful of key veterans, including forwards Doug Beck, Brett Lubanski, Brad Duwe and Jesse Ramsey, along with defensemen Chris Rial and Raymond Stenehjem, among others, have helped right the Brown Bears’ ship.
“We’re a very hard-working team,” said David. “We don't take time off, and we spend 8-9 hours a day together. Our philosophy isn’t for everyone. The boys who are here have bought in. It’s fun to be a part of.”
And David is excited to let the good times roll into the Robertson Cup Playoffs, where the Brown Bears will face a tough test in the first round with a match up against Fairbanks.
The Ice Dogs are not only the division champions and the highest-scoring team in the league heading into the final weekend, they’re also the only team the Brown Bears have a losing record against this season (4-6-2).
“It’s safe to say we’re the undisputed underdogs,” said David. “If there was ever a situation to test the makeup of our club, we’ll find it in the first round. We’ll need to be better than we ever have been, and really trust each other. The boys are pumped.”
Goaltending and team defense, in David’s estimation, will dictate the Brown Bears’ fate against the high-powered Ice Dogs.
“More things need to go right than wrong for us and, no matter a team’s style or system of choice, everyone needs to be on the same page and be 100 percent committed to execution,” he said. “We need to prepare well if we want a chance to succeed.”
And regardless of what plays out in the postseason, David is eager to build on the winning framework the organization established this year.
“Because of our success this season, the bar has been set even higher for next season,” said the coach. “We’re working towards being elite, and we’re looking for quality athletes.”
WEST DIVISION NOTEBOOK
ALASKA AVALANCHE: With last weekend off, Alaska travels to Fairbanks this weekend for a three-game series against the regular-season division champion Ice Dogs. With a third-place finish in the division secured, the Avalanche will take on Wenatchee in the first round of the Robertson Cup Playoffs.
DAWSON CREEK RAGE: Having not played a game since March 5, the Rage will close the curtain on its first NAHL campaign this weekend with a three-game series in Kenai River beginning on Thursday. The Rage averaged over 1,000 a game in attendance at EnCana Events Centre this season.
FAIRBANKS ICE DOGS: The regular-season division champion Ice Dogs skated to a two-game sweep over Kenai River last weekend, including a 4-0 victory on Friday. The win marked goaltender Joe Phillippi’s third shutout performance of the season (26 saves). Fairbanks welcomes Alaska to town for a three-game series to wrap up the regular season.
FRESNO MONSTERS: Fresno dropped a two-game set in Wenatchee last weekend by identical 6-2 counts. Forward Johan Bjorklund notched a pair of goals in the series, with forwards Jordan Lovick and DJ Carnley adding the other two markers. The Monsters welcome Wichita Falls to town for a two-game series to conclude their first NAHL season.
WENATCHEE WILD: Wenatchee fashioned a 3-1 record last week, including a two-game sweep over Fresno. Forwards Carl-Johan Sjogren racked up two goals and two assists in the series, while forward DJ Vandercook and defenseman Kyle Hudson each collected four assists. The Wild finished its regular season in second place with a 34-21-3 record and will take on Alaska in the first round of the Robertson Cup Playoffs.