Hockey

Focusing on a day-by-day approach, Kenai River Brown Bears have gone from worst to first

The Anchorage Wolverines made a surprise run to the finals as an expansion team last year in the North American Hockey League, and the Fairbanks Ice Dogs are a perennial powerhouse in the NAHL.

But right now, they are both looking up at the Kenai River Brown Bears, who are sitting atop the Midwest Division standings after sweeping the Wisconsin Windigo at home last weekend.

Head coach Taylor Shaw, who served as interim head coach last season after taking over for Josh Dubinsky, has the team focused on taking a day-by-day approach.

And it’s working — the Brown Bears have gone from worst to first after finishing at the bottom of the division last season.

Shaw, along with new assistant coaches Dean Weasler and Jake Leitner, has turned the team around in short order.

“Our job was to come in and lay a whole new foundation, and kind of change both the on-ice and off-ice culture aspect of the organization. We’ve been working really hard to do that,” Shaw said Wednesday.

“We had the ability to bring back 19 players, and we brought back probably less than half of that. We’ve really tried to turn the page and bring some new faces into the group and keep some of the vets around, but again, when you only win 14 games, something has got to change.”

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Weasler, who Shaw said was his first call when he started looking for assistant coaches, has been integral in helping to right the ship.

A former standout goaltender at St. Cloud State (Minnesota) who has 18 years of coaching experience, Weasler has the Brown Bears netminders playing well between the pipes.

The duo of Nils Wallstrom of Sweden and Bryant Marks of Wasilla has been consistently sharp.

Marks, who has committed to play for the University of Alaska Anchorage Seawolves next season, has shown marked improvement from last season. While just 3-2 in five games, he sports a stingy 1.80 goals-against average and .942 save percentage (third-best in the league). In 2021-22, those numbers were 3.84 and .889.

Wallstrom, meanwhile, is tied for second in the NAHL with eight wins, third in saves (385) and has solid numbers backing up the victories — his goals-against average is 2.54 and he’s stopping .927 percent of the shots he faces.

On the other end of the ice, Bryce Monrean of Anchorage — who has committed to play for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Nanooks next season — ranks ninth in the NAHL with 15 points (seven goals, eight assists) and Ryan Finch (8 goals, 6 assists) and Garett Drotts (7 goals, 6 assists) are also among the league leaders.

Going into this weekend at home against the Chippewa Steel, the Brown Bears will continue to stick with a be-in-the-present approach.

“I think the biggest thing for us is the details,” Shaw said. “Just looking at what’s in front of us now ... focus on one day at time and not what’s ahead. So right now, today’s not over, so our guys are still focused on today. And when they head home to their billet houses, we’ll turn the page and look toward tomorrow. That’s kind of been the biggest thing for us.”

Casey Brogan

Casey Brogan is a copy editor and page designer at the Anchorage Daily News.

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