SOLDOTNA, Alaska – First place.
Those are two words that haven’t been thrown around the Kenai Peninsula much in recent years in terms of junior hockey. As the new year dawns in the Land of the Midnight Sun, however, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel for Kenai River Brown Bears fans.
Much of that is thanks to a new approach from a new head coach. Former North Iowa Bulls associate head coach Kevin Murdock is now Kenai River’s head coach, and at 22-8-1-3, the first-place spot in the North American Hockey League’s Midwest Division is exactly where the Brown Bears find themselves as the calendar flips to 2020.
The team’s 48 points are a milestone in and of themselves – that mark ranks fourth on the 26-team circuit heading into the new year. By comparison, the team’s 52-point season last year was its best finish in five years, none of which ended in a Robertson Cup playoff bid. Since entering the NAHL in 2007, the Brown Bears have never won a playoff series, and the team nearly folded in 2017 after encountering major financial difficulties. Donations from Alaska Airlines and the rival Fairbanks Ice Dogs keyed a one-month, $300,000 fundraising effort that ended with the team’s reactivation for 2017-18.
“The first half of the season has been a bit of a whirlwind,” said Murdock. “I think our team has continued to improve weekly. I think we’ve been fortunate to win some games along the way, as well as have a few players receive NCAA Division I commitments and call-ups to the USHL.”
The Brown Bears vaulted into first place after a red-hot run through the month of November – their 10-game winning streak in that month remains the league’s best of the year. Local hockey fans have noticed – the team is drawing 1,095 fans a night, far and away its highest attendance figures ever. 2,450 fans packed into the Soldotna Sports Center on December 7 to see their team crush Janesville 8-1 in the final Brown Bears home game of 2019.
“Ultimately the biggest challenge (coming into the organization), and our goal since day one, was to change the way people perceived Kenai,”said Murdock, “regardless of whatever struggles the team may have faced in the past.”
NCAA coaches and scouts are noticing, too – Kenai River kicked off 2020 by announcing forward Theo Thrun’s commitment to NCAA Division I Western Michigan University, the team’s fifth D-I commitment of the year. That is already more D-I commitments than the team celebrated over the previous three seasons combined.
“Kevin has experience playing in the USHL and at the NCAA Division I level,” said Kenai River general manager Chris Hedlund, following Murdock’s hiring this past spring. “His commitment to player growth and on-ice success was apparent to us. He is an example of the Ladder of Development success that is the signature of the NAHL.”
As North Iowa’s associate head coach, Murdock was intimately involved in the Bulls’ day-to-day hockey operations, and helped lead the Bulls to 119 regular season and postseason wins. More than 40 Bulls players and alumni in his three years with the team ended up moving on to college and NAHL programs, including several who reached the NCAA Division I ranks.
The Bradenton, Florida native turned a three-year junior career with the Lincoln Stars of the United States Hockey League and a three-year college career at Lake Superior State University into a brief goaltending career at the professional level, playing for teams in the ECHL and the Southern Professional Hockey League.
“Last year, we gave him the full reins on the hockey operations side to make personnel decisions and system adjustments,” said Bulls head coach Todd Sanden. “Kevin’s a great young coach, a really smart and sharp coach. (Assistant coach Mark) Hicks and I have a lot of faith in Kevin as a person who’s going to work hard and give the effort that it takes to have his teams be successful.”
Murdock’s team is scoring in bunches, and has a number of legitimate stars on the roster this season – Alaska-Anchorage commit Zach Krajnik’s 39 points rank fourth in the league as the calendar turns over, and Thrun is just two points behind. Goalie Landon Pavlisin leads the league in wins, and the Brown Bears’ scoring average is third-best in the league.
With a league-best 58 goals in the third period and overtime, Kenai River is also outlasting opponents, and winning games late. So how high is the Brown Bears’ ceiling? Murdock says it’s even higher than where his team is at right now.
“We still have a ways to go before we’re really playing up to our capabilities on a nightly basis, but it has been extremely encouraging to see some success this first half of the year,” said Murdock. “I think our consistency and focus is going to be the biggest thing for us come the second half of the season. Putting together a full 60-minute effort is still something we are working on, and keeping the guys focused on a daily basis in games and practices is going to be extremely important.”
A South Division swing is next up for Kenai River, with a two-game visit to the Amarillo Bulls on Friday and Saturday. The expansion New Mexico Ice Wolves host the Brown Bears next weekend before the team returns home for a seven-game run in Alaska. Three of those games will be against the Ice Dogs, who enter the new year just one point behind Murdock’s team for the Midwest Division lead.