By Jenny Neyman
In a community the size of the central Kenai Peninsula, with a limited amount of support available for any one program or area of interest, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing.
When it comes to hockey, that limit hasn’t been reached.
The Kenai River Brown Bears Junior A hockey program is settling into its second season, drawing higher attendance at games and more financial support from the community than it did last year.
“It’s been very good,” said Nate Kiel, general manager of the Brown Bears, of the team’s 700 to 750 game attendance average this year. “It’s been an improvement from last year. We’re still not quite where we’d like it to be, but it’s certainly been up.”
Part of that support comes from people who, in the past, have been devoted to other levels of hockey — the youth Kenai Peninsula Hockey Association and high school hockey programs. But any concern that there wasn’t enough fans or contributors to go around for all three levels of hockey don’t seem to be holding true, say coaches of high school and youth hockey.
“I’m happy with them being here. I guess I can’t think of anything really negative,” said Pete Iverson, head hockey coach at Kenai Central High School.
Iverson and Soldotna High head hockey coach Aaron Swanson, who also coaches KPHA hockey, said it’s still early in the season to tell for sure, but they haven’t noticed a decrease in their game attendance.
SoHi and Kenai had home games last weekend. At Friday’s game, Diane Garske, a SoHi parent, said she didn’t think attendance would decline.
“I see past parents that don’t have kids playing anymore. Parents do still come and support the high school teams,” she said.
Fundraising hasn’t been any more difficult, either. Swanson said SoHi’s team does value-added fundraisers, like making sandbags that local stores can buy and resell, so a program like the Brown Bears seeking larger-scale sponsorships doesn’t affect them much. The same goes for KCHS.
“So far Kenai has not experienced a lack of fundraising because of the Brown Bears, or lack of community support,” Iverson said.
The impact coaches have seen is increased interest from their players due to the Brown Bears.
“It seems like there’s a lot of interest in the younger kids with the Brown Bears being in town, which is helpful in building a hockey program in the area,” Swanson said.
“I know among my players that I directly interact with, that’s what they do when the Brown Bears are in town,” Iverson said. “That’s their weekend is going to the games. For that reason alone they’re good to have because it’s giving the hockey kids something to do.”
Beyond just providing more hockey to watch, having a Junior A team gives younger players a goal.
“It gives them something to look at and shoot for,” Garske said.
It also gives younger players an idea of what it takes to achieve that goal.
“They see these kids that are essentially two levels above where varsity hockey is,” Iverson said. “They see the talent level it would take to do that, because a lot of these kids are interested in doing that.”
Brown Bears are expected to perform community service and conduct themselves in a manner that reflects well on the organization.
“They’re seeing the work ethic and the moral standards that they’re held to,” Iverson said. “I hope that will be a positive impact on my kids. So far it has been.”
Kiel said the majority of players in the North American Hockey League are on track for college.
“I think that it is an excellent program for high school players to look toward,” he said. “The players we have are role models and they come from great backgrounds with solid grades and they all aspire to play college hockey.”
Kiel is the former head hockey coach at KCHS. Coming from that background, he’s tried to avoid conflicting with the high school programs.
Brown Bears practices are held in the mornings, so they don’t take up ice time after school when younger teams practice. And games are scheduled so as not to conflict with other events.
“Being in the high school ranks for a long time, we’ve done everything possible to not have conflicts in terms of scheduling,” Kiel said.
Even fundraising is done at a different level.
“On the one hard, realizing there are only so many dollars out there one might argue that, but we’re on a different scale in size and scope compared to high school athletics,” Kiel said. “We’ve approached lot of big, major corporations for support.”
“I think that it’ll have a positive impact on high school players, as well as on youth hockey, in general,” Kiel said. “… Young players are lining up for autographs and wanting to talk to players after the games. I think it’s been a neat thing to see our youth be exposed to this level of the sport, as well as the good kids that we have.”