Brown bears are just starting to wake up on the Kenai Peninsula, stepping out into the sun after their long winter naps.
They're not the only brown bears reappearing. The Kenai River Brown Bears are coming back to Alaska to play eight games in Soldotna next month — their first games in Alaska since last March.
That’s great news for fans like Rhonda McCormick.
“I go to every game that I can," she said. "If I don't have a prior commitment, I’m there. It’s just such an important thing in our community to support.”
Up until February, Alaska required incoming travelers to get COVID-19 tests before entering the state. General Manager Chris Hedlund said that was a contributing factor to why the Brown Bears couldn’t play up here.
“Part of it is if a team comes up and all of a sudden they were to test when they land, find out they had COVID, by the time you quarantine a team — then we can't play a game and we just spent a lot of money to bring them up, to house them to not play," he said. "And so we couldn’t take the financial risk of the COVID travel protocols on the backside, as well as not having enough fans.”
The city’s Soldotna Regional Sports Complex has been operating at a limited capacity, most recently with 250 spectators allowed in the stands at once. But in February, Soldotna raised that cap to 750, assuming coronavirus rates stay low.
It’s still fewer people than the Brown Bears are used to. The team averaged 1,000 fans per game last season.
McCormick and her family are part of that fan base. Her brother hosts Brown Bears when they’re in town.
“There’s always at least one guy, sometimes two on the team that are part of our extended family, and so it’s fun to watch them specifically," she said. "And the Brown Bear he has that’s coming back this year, this will be their third year hosting them. So we’ve really got to know him well.”
Meantime, the Brown Bears have made Breezy Point, Minn., their home rink. Alaska’s other North American Hockey League team, the Fairbanks Ice Dogs, has been playing out of Marshall, Minn.
They’ve been keeping crowds smaller there, too. Hedlund says they’ve been as frugal as possible this season, since they’re not selling as many tickets — for example, they don’t have the same decked-out locker room they’re used to in Soldotna.
Hedlund said the players are looking forward to getting back to that hometown feel.
“You have the crowd behind us, regardless of whether it's a good call or bad call, but they’re mad because the call was made against the team," he said. "That hometown feel, where someone is trying to stick up for you. They miss that.”
Over half of the team is new this year. Most of them are from the Lower 48 and haven’t played in Alaska before.
So far this season, the Brown Bears have had 13 wins and 17 losses.
“We’re excited to get on the big sheet," he said. "We’ve been playing on small sheets of ice, relative to the sports center. And we built our team for the big sheet and I think that’s been hurting us a little bit. We’re playing well, we’re just not scoring the goals when the opportunity’s there, so we’re not completing our scoring chances. That starts to click, it’ll be just like they saw last year. They can put up one goal or we can put up nine in a game.”
The Brown Bears’ first home games are April 16 and 17, against Fairbanks.
Tickets will likely come online Tuesday. Hedlund’s banking on selling out and says they’ll have packages of tickets for all eight home games.
“The Bears are Back Pack. And you want to get one of those 750? That would be the way to do it," he said. "Jump on that link as soon as it’s open and buy all eight games.”
Soon, the Brown Bears will be playing against another Alaska team. The North American Hockey League announced today it’s approved the membership application for the Anchorage Wolverines. They’ll start competing against the Brown Bears, Ice Dogs and other teams in the Midwest Division in the 2021-2022 season.