The 2009-2010 North American Hockey League season officially opens this weekend with eight teams kicking off the action, beginning Friday, September 11. The West Division will get things started as the Kenai River Brown Bears head to Wasilla, Alaska for a three-game series with the Alaska Avalanche, and the Wenatchee Wild, last year’s Robertson Cup runner-up, will host the Fairbanks Ice Dogs in a Friday-Saturday series.
“We’re excited to get the season rolling,” said Ice Dogs head coach, Josh Hauge. “It’s good to start playing games that mean something, and I think the sooner the better. We know how good Wenatchee is, and it will be an early measuring stick for us prior to the Showcase Tournament next week.”
The opening weekend action continues on Saturday with four games, including the debut of the Janesville Jets, who will kick off their first-ever NAHL season with a pair of home tilts against the Traverse City North Stars. The Owatonna Express will invade the Albert Lea Arena to take on the Thunder in a one-game battle of Interstate 35 on Saturday night.
The new season means an air of optimism surrounds each team as they embark on a quest for the Robertson Cup. And there are reasons for each to be excited. The Avalanche, for example, is returning its top five scorers from last year’s club, and four of their top seven defensemen.
“We’re excited about the returners coming back for another year, and we have some exciting new guys we think can make an impact in this League,” said Alaska’s second-year head coach, Dave Boitz. “We’re in better shape than we were in a year ago. We definitely have good guys coming back, a deeper core of returners.”
Those returners include Kyle Pichler, who is returning for his third season with the Avs, and is already the club’s career scoring leader after posting 17 goals and 24 assists last season.
Wenatchee is also depending on a group of 11 returners to build on an impressive debut season in 2008-2009. A total of 11 players will return from last year’s team, the most notable being Duncan McKellar, who finished second on the Wild’s scoring charts with 51 points on 17 goals and 34 assists.
The combination of veterans and newcomers has Wenatchee head coach, Paul Baxter eagerly anticipating the season.
“I am really pleased with the overall fitness level of both the newcomers and the returning players,” he said. “We expect great things from them.”
Wenatchee exceeded expectations a year ago, setting the bar high for Janesville in its inaugural season. After rolling to two straight wins in their final exhibition games, head coach Dane Litke felt his team was close to being ready.
“We have a few areas we need to work on,” he admitted. “But hopefully we are ready to play.”
For Janesville to make an impact this season it will likely rely on goaltender, Matt Wichorek, the club’s first pick in the NAHL draft, and at age 20, he has one more season to earn a coveted offer from a college program.
“This is my last year. Hopefully, I can give it one last shot,” the Anchorage, Alaska native told the Janesville Gazette. “I’m glad I got a team that wants me. I’m glad to be given this opportunity.”
The Jets will aim for their first win against the Stars, a team that won’t know what to expect, other than a raucous crowd.
“One thing’s for sure, they’ll have a ton of people in there, and they’ll be jacked up,” said Traverse City head coach/general manager, Anthony Palumbo. “It’s their inaugural game in their new home, and we’ll have to be ready to match their energy.”
The North Stars, coming off a franchise-best 34-17-7 mark last season, will start this year without three of its top players in forwards Kyle Jean and Nick Shkreli and defenseman Chris Hieneman. Jean and Shkreli will miss about 10 games each with upper body injuries, while Hieneman will likely be out until January following offseason surgery.
“Between Jean and Shkreli, those are two of our top scorers,” said Palumbo. “But I do like our depth, and we do have a bunch of guys with a lot of experience and we’ll have to step up in those areas.”