Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Bears come out to play — Hockey fans don’t have to wait much longer for Junior A action

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Summer hibernation is over. The Brown Bears are back.

The central Kenai Peninsula’s own Junior A hockey team was on the ice for a skills competition Saturday with fans in the bleachers to see how the team is shaping up this year.

There are a lot of changes as the Brown Bears embark on their second season. The Bears themselves have many new faces. The roster isn’t finalized yet, but so far there are still five Alaskans in the running to make the team — Matt Sutherland, Jed McGlasson and Kegan Kiel, all of Kenai, Brad Fusaro, of Soldotna, and Matt Bennett, of Anchorage.
Brown Bears General Manager Nate Kiel said hundreds of skaters tried out for the team this year, compared to 150 last year.

“We had a huge improvement in the total number of players trying out and in quality,” Kiel said. “They’re coming out of high-level programs.”

Tanner Waterbury, a 2008 Soldotna High School graduate, was in the crowd with his dad, Rocky Waterbury, watching the Brown Bears weave through the skills competition — an obstacle course relay, skate race, elimination shootout, agility course, accuracy shooting, hardest shot and breakaway challenge, followed by a green vs. white scrimmage. Tanner is planning to attend the University of Puget Sound, Wa., and play for the Loggers. He tried out for the Brown Bears, so he had a firsthand look at what their strengths and weaknesses may be this year.

“I think they’ll be a high-offense team,” he said. “… They’re all pretty quick and they’ve got pretty good hands. They might struggle defensively. And they’ve got two new goalies, so I don’t know how the goaltending will work out.”

A new coaching staff is at the helm. Head coach Brent Agrusa came to the Brown Bears by way of the Hampton Roads Whalers hockey program in Chesapeake, Va., where his was the only undefeated Junior team in the country during his first year with the Junior B program there. In 2007, Agrusa posted another impressive season, with 12 of his players moving on to NCAA schools.

Players were in Soldotna for training camp Aug. 19 to 23. Coach Agrusa has kept them moving since, with stretching at 6 a.m., ice time from 7 to 8:30 a.m. and team meetings and three different dry-land training sessions after that. Players also are expected to work or take classes in the community from 4 to 4:30 p.m.

“There’s very little time for play for the Brown Bears,” Kiel said. “The coach expects them to be dedicated and down to work. That’s why they’re here.”

Jon Marshall, head of security for the Brown Bears, and Kacey Marshall, a volunteer coordinator, predicted the new coaching staff and their work ethic will propel the Brown Bears to success this season.

“They’re doing a lot of heavy-duty conditioning this year,” Jon Marshall said.
Even though games don’t start until mid-September, the Marshalls were happy to be rinkside in their Brown Bears sweaters Saturday in anticipation of the season.

“I think it’s great, for sure,” Jon Marshall said. “I think for kids playing hockey around here, it gives them something to shoot for.”

The Brown Bears give adults something, too — an opportunity to watch live, quality hockey.

“It’s about time,” said Morgan Burdick, of Sterling.

“We need something like that down here,” his wife, Mary Burdick, said. “When your kids are grown and don’t play high school sports anymore, it’s a nice thing to come watch hockey.”

The Burdicks were Skyview hockey parents until 2003.

“When you’re hockey parents, it’s like you live here,” Mary Burdick said. “… But we missed it. We went out to see some high school games, but it’s not the same.”

They’ve already bought their Brown Bears season tickets.

“We’re their number one fans,” Morgan said.

Perhaps the biggest change for the Brown Bears isn’t even visible on the ice. The program switched to nonprofit status. Barry Schoenly founded the team in the midst of a battle with cancer. That experience made Schoenly want to ensure the future of the program by getting the local community involved, Kiel said.

Thus, the Kenai Peninsula Youth Foundation was born.

“It’s not just entertainment on the ice, but the things we bring to the community in terms of service projects,” Kiel said. “It’s been a real successful venture. The Brown Bears are really the vehicle that helps carry out its mission of helping deliver programs that will help our youth develop mentally and physically.”

Upcoming events include a cancer awareness week with health programs planned for kids, and a military awareness week in recognition of the armed forces. Brown Bears also do service projects for the cities, churches, the Boys and Girls Club, schools, the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank and other organizations.

Much of the nonprofit’s funding comes in the form of corporate sponsorships, and nearly 30 local businesses and community members have signed up for Founders sponsorships.
“As soon as we went nonprofit … it just really took off at that point, with the business side. They want to support this for kids,” Kiel said.

Fans are another source of vital support, through their cheering in the stands and tickets at the door.

“Support this program by buying a season ticket, if nothing else. We’d love to have that support because we need more of it. We’re not there yet,” Kiel said.

With the nonprofit’s finances finding its footing, the Brown Bears will take it from there.

“I think we’ll do well,” Kiel said. “Based on the talent pool we have here this year and the coaching staff we’re bringing in, I feel really good about it.”

The Brown Bears ended last season with a 12-38-8 record, the worst in the North American Hockey League. Kiel said he thinks that works in the team’s favor.

“We’re entering our sophomore season here. I don’t think anyone expects anything out of the Brown Bears except the Brown Bears.”

A Meet the Brown Bears event will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. Sept. 13 in the conference room at the Soldotna Sports Center, with steak dinner and opportunities to photograph and meet the players. Tickets are $15. A green vs. white hockey game will be played at 7:30 p.m. Admission to the game is free.

Games begin Sept. 17. The first game at Soldotna Sports Center is Oct. 3 vs. the Fairbanks Ice Dogs. Season tickets sell for $219. Call 262-PUCK for more information.

The winners of the skills competition are as follows:
Fastest skater, Kyle Clay; hardest shot, Rob Michalka; shot accuracy, Pat Sullivan; agility course, Jed McGlasson; and breakaway, Gary Astalos.

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