Rapid community fundraising — $300,000 collected in less than a month — has earned the Kenai River Brown Bears a rink reprieve.
The North American Hockey League's Board of Governors on Tuesday voted to reactivate the Brown Bears for the 2017-18 season, which will be Kenai River's 11th season on the junior circuit that is a springboard to college hockey.
The Peninsula Clarion first reported the reprieve for Kenai River, which became inactive at the end of the 2016-17 season earlier this month because of financial difficulties.
The Brown Bears in recent seasons have encountered difficulties on the ice and at the box office.
Kenai River's 12-46-2 record this season was second-worst in the 24-team league that stretches across the country, though it was an improvement from its league-worst 4-51-5 record in 2015-16. Kenai River averaged 562 fans per home game this season at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex, an improvement over its average of 522 in 2015-16, but still far lower than the franchise's record average of 855 in 2012-13.
Kenai River has not qualified for the playoffs in any of the last three seasons.
The last year has been a rough one for higher levels of hockey in Alaska, which is suffering a recession.
The Alaska Aces of the ECHL, a professional minor league two steps below the NHL, folded earlier this month because of financial losses.
And the Division I programs at UAA and UAF, which have endured budget cuts in recent years and are likely to endure more, were threatened with elimination before being removed from the chopping block.
Kenai River's survival will no doubt be welcome news for the rival Fairbanks Ice Dogs because it will keep them from having to play all of their road games Outside. Kenai River and Fairbanks played 13 times this season — seven times in Fairbanks and six times in Soldotna — during their 60-game regular-season schedules.
The Ice Dogs, currently in the first round of the Robertson Cup playoffs, are a perennial power. They are the defending Robertson Cup champions and have won three of the previous six Cups — they also conquered in 2014 and 2011.
The NAHL is generally considering the second-best junior circuit in the nation behind the Midwest-based U.S. Hockey League, which features 17 teams. More than 180 players who competed in the NAHL this season have made commitments to college hockey programs, and about 90 percent of those players are ticketed for Division I, the highest level of college hockey. Four players who competed for the Brown Bears this season have made college commitments, all to Division III programs.