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NA Now: Kenai River Brown Bears

August 20, 2023

The NA Now series features a look at all 32 teams in the NAHL for the 2023-24 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: Taylor Shaw (3rd Season)

2022-23 record: 60 GP, 32-24-4, 68 pts. (3rd in the Midwest Division)

2022-23 leading scorer: Garett Grotts (53 points)

2023 Playoffs: Lost to the Minnesota Wilderness in the Midwest Division Semi-Finals, 3-0

2023-24 Division: Midwest

First regular season game: Saturday, September 9th @ Chippewa Steel

Home opener: Saturday, October 7th vs. Anchorage Wolverines

Last season was one to remember for the Kenai River Brown Bears and head coach Taylor Shaw. Led by a group of solid veteran players, the Brown Bears achieved success both on and off the ice that the organization had never seen. On the ice, the Brown Bears were as competitive as they have ever been, recording a franchise record 32 wins and 68 points, finishing 3rd in the Midwest Division, and earning a spot in the Robertson Cup Playoffs. The 32 wins marked an 18-win improvement, and the 68 points marked a 35-point improvement from the season before.

Off the ice, the Brown Bears ended the season with 11 NCAA commitments, including six Division I commitments. Along with the winning came a whole new group of fans, which was evident in the spike in attendance for the Brown Bears, who finished in the Top 10 in NAHL attendance with 1,807 fans per game, which included several games with over 3,000+ fans.

A large amount of credit goes to Head Coach Taylor Shaw, who enters his third season behind the bench for Kenai River. Shaw, a native of Sartell, MN, most served as the Interim Head Coach for the Brown Bears after starting the 2021-22 season as an assistant coach. The interim tag was removed in May of 2022 and last season Shaw took the team to new heights.

However, Shaw was quick to deflect the credit to others on the team. “The credit goes to the players. For us to come in and break a franchise record for wins after only winning 14 games the year before really speaks to the talent level, the culture, and the commitment by the players last year. I also give credit to our staff because they worked very hard to obtain and develop these players. All of it give us something to build upon for this upcoming season,” said Shaw. “I have tried to surround myself with people and coaches who may have strengths and assets that can complement mine to make our success a full collaborative effort.”

Watch: NA Now video interview with Taylor Shaw

“Our guys were resilient last seaon. I think everyone in the NAHL goes through the adversity of things like travel and team health and we really did a good job of managing that last year. It was a dogfight within our division last year just to get in the playoffs, which is a testament to the depth of the teams and competition. The guys had a real willingness to come to work and make sure they were involved in the community and as a result we saw such a big increase in support and attendance. Some of our games had over 3,000 fans and that kind of atmosphere really helps and motivates the players,” said Shaw.

Last year’s success sets up big expectations this season for the Brown Bears. With the majority of players from last season’s record-breaking team off to the NCAA, this year’s version is light on returning players. Up front, the Brown Bears return forwards such as Nick Stevens (24 points), Kotaro Tsutsumi (24 points), Hayden Walters (21 points), and Owen Hanson (13 points). On defense, returners include Luke Hause, Joe Manning and Blake Norris, who played for the Brown Bears two seasons ago. The Brown Bears also added Dylan Contreras, who had 32 points with the Corpus Christi IceRays last season. In goal, Kenai River begins the season with three new netminders who include: Petter Wickstrom, Conor Sullivan, and AJ Reyelts.

“We tried to acquire some veteran presence for this season. We understand there is going to be heightened expectations. Heading into the start of the season and the Showcase, we really have to take it game by game, because it’s a lot of games in a small time frame and if you look at the whole picture of opponents and scouts and fans and exposure, it can get quite overwhelming. We just need to worry about our next game and not try and look ahead,” said Shaw. “Our fans are super fired up for this year after what happened last year. I think when you add the rivalries we have established in the division, especially with Fairbanks and Anchorage, it shows that we can be a hockey town. Our guys spend a lot of time in the community, and it’s paid off in support at our games. It’s led to a really exciting environment for players and fans,” said Shaw.

Next Up: Lone Star Brahmas

 
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