The Kenai River Brown Bears have been back in town for over a week after a year Outside. But they're not playing any home games quite yet.
The team pushed back its at-home opener against Fairbanks, originally slated for this weekend, after rising coronavirus case rates triggered a drop in spectator capacity at the rink. The Brown Bears are now scheduled to play those games mid-May and their first home game of the season on April 23.
General Manager Chris Hedlund said it’s so case rates have a chance to go down.
“We thought the further we put it in front of us, the better chance that the dashboard would go down," he said. "That dashboard’s instantaneous.”
The dashboard he’s referring to is state data on COVID-19 case rates. Soldotna is using those numbers to set its capacity limits for the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.
When cases were down in February, the city raised the cap from 250 to 750 spectators. But it was conditional on the average daily case rate staying under 10 cases per 100,000 people. As of Wednesday, the average was up to 21 for the central peninsula.
With the first two games pushed back, the Brown Bears aren’t playing for another week. The team’s next six games are at home, against the Chippewa Steel and Janesville Jets, both Wisconsin teams.
On May 7 and 8, the team will take on the Ice Dogs in Fairbanks, before returning to Soldotna May 14 and 15 for those rescheduled matches.
Hedlund said the Brown Bears are going to play their home games even if they can only have 250 fans there. But he hopes pushing things back a bit could give the team a better chance at a big crowd. Bigger is better in this case, for a few reasons.
“First and foremost, obviously, revenue," he said. "If you give out 500 tickets at a face value of what we expect to be $20, that’s a nice chunk of revenue for eight games. The other piece is from the player side, we have not had a home game with more than 100 fans, of our fans.”
Even without that revenue from an additional 500 tickets, however, he said they’ll be OK.
“It concerns us but it doesn't put us in peril," he said. It just means that our projections and what we expected to have for financial success won't be there, we don't control that at this point. It’s a COVID-driven piece. Kind of matches how the season’s gone.”
Meantime, the Brown Bears are back with their host families. Hedlund said they’ve been practicing on the big sheet — a change of pace from the smaller sheets they were playing on in the Lower 48.
The team played the first part of the season from an adopted home rink in Breezy Point, Minn. Hedlund said they were waiting for the state to change its travel requirements and for Soldotna to raise its rink capacity.
The Fairbanks Ice Dogs were also playing in Minnesota. They came back to Alaska last week, too.
Hedlund said he’s trying to be cautiously optimistic. For now, cases are on an upward trajectory on the Kenai Peninsula.
“But maybe we’ll get lucky and they’ll change in the near future," he said.
He said fans should monitor the website as more tickets come online.