NA Now: Kenai River Brown Bears
The NA Now series features a look at all teams in the NAHL for the 2021-22 season, with a new team being highlighted daily, leading all the way up until the start of the regular season. NA Now looks into each NAHL team including interviews with all the head coaches in the NAHL, as they provide fans with their expectations and outlook for the season, including taking a look at their strengths as a team and thoughts on the league. It will also take a look back on last season and how each team fared and what they accomplished.
Kenai River Brown Bears
Head Coach: Josh Dubinsky (1st Season)
2020-21 record: 48 GP, 22-24-2, 46 pts. (4th in the Midwest Division)
2020-21 leading scorer: Max Helgeson (41 points)
2021 Playoffs: Lost in the Midwest Finals to the Minnesota Magicians, 3 games to 2
2021-22 Division: Midwest
First regular season game: Friday, September 10th vs. Chippewa Steel
Home opener: Friday, October 21st vs. Chippewa Steel
The Kenai River Brown Bears had about as many highs and lows as one team could have had in a season last year. Like the Fairbanks Ice Dogs, the Brown Bears played almost the entire regular season in the state of Minnesota because of the restrictions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. The Brown Bears played four games in November and then finished the regular season with 44 games from January through May.
Right before the playoffs, the Brown Bears parted ways with head coach Kevin Murdock, leaving Josh Dubinsky to lead the team the remainder of the season and into the playoffs. The move seemed to bring the team together as they pulled off a huge opening round upset of the division champion Janesville Jets. In the Midwest Finals, the Brown Bears went down 0-2 to the Minnesota Magicians, only to fight back with two straight wins to force a Game 5, where they ultimately lost 3-2 in the deciding game, falling just short of making it to the Robertson Cup Championship.
“It was a crazy last month and a half for us, but it was credit to the guys in the lockerroom because they came together and really played well at the end of the regular season. I think it was a huge accomplishment to be able to knock off and very good Janesville team in the playoffs and then to take the Magicians to a 5th game In the Midwest Finals was pretty special. The players really deserve the credit because they put their minds to it and made the best of a tough situation,” said Dubinsky, about his team’s run to end the season.
On August 6th, the Brown Bears made it official, promoting Dubinsky to full-time and permanent head coach. “It’s an opportunity that I am very excited for. We have a good group of guys coming back so I am excited to work with them again and continue their development. I am grateful and thankful for the opportunity to lead this team this season,” said Dubinsky.
The Brown Bears have only a handful of returning players coming back and will need to replace a lot of production. “We needed to replace a lot of scoring and forwards. That was a big target of ours when we were signing tenders and also in both drafts. I am excited with some of the new talent we have coming in,” said Dubinsky. “Our Main Camp a few weeks ago went well. I was excited to see some of the tenders and draft picks in person. Some were a pleasant surprise, in my opinion. We play on a big sheet of ice in Soldotna so we built a team of guys who can really wheel. We might not be the biggest, but our goal is to be the fastest.”
NAHL Top Prospects forward Jake Veri returns to the line-up after putting up 20 points in 36 games played last season between Kenai River and Danbury. “Jake is a very smart and skilled forward and I think it will be great to see how he responds to an enhanced role this season with the team,” said Dubinsky. Another key member coming back will be defenseman Brendan Hill. The Lake Superior State commit put up 10 points in 47 games played last season between Kenai River and Maryland. “Brendan is a great leader and is going to be very important to our success on and off the ice this season,” said Dubinsky.
The Brown Bears enter the 2021-22 season by needing two new regular goalies. Luke Pavicich, who was the All-NAHL 2nd Team goaltender in 2020-21, is off to play NCAA Division I hockey at UMass. He was in the Top 8 in the NAHL last season in games played, minutes played, shots faced, and wins. Nathan Dickey, who played three games for the Brown Bears as a tender and affiliate player from the Esmark Stars 18U team in the NAPHL, begins the season as one of the hopefuls in goal for the Brown Bears.
“I am excited about the new look in the division. I think it will be a lot of fun for our team and our fans to have a new rivalry with the team in Anchorage. We will get to play them 12 times this year just like Fairbanks, so it really should add to the rivalry aspect of the three teams in the state and we are happy about the reduced travel as well because of it.
Next up: Lone Star Brahmas