The location might be different, but the view is familiar for the St. Louis Bandits.
Since moving to the Gateway City from Texarkana before the 2006-07 season, the Bandits have not spent two consecutive seasons in the same division, but have annually found their way to the top of the heap despite their nomadic placement.
The 2010-11 campaign has featured more of the same for St. Louis. When the North American Hockey League (NAHL) membership swelled to 26 during the off-season, and divisional alignments were re-drawn, the Bandits returned to the North Division.
The club posted a 42-9-7 mark as members of the North in 2008-09, and is off to a 7-1-2 start in its return. They spent 2006-07 and 2009-10 in the South Division.
“We’re just located in a part of the country that puts us on the bubble,” said St. Louis head coach Jeff Brown, who is in his third season at the helm. “We’re the gateway to the West, and we’ve been in a division with Texas and Alaska teams. We’ve also been in with teams from the Southwest and teams up North. The only place we haven’t been is with the Minnesota teams. It’s just a part of the process, and really doesn’t change our approach.”
The current edition of the Bandits, sole tenants of the North Division penthouse through the first weekend of October, includes a pair of seven-goal scorers in Ryan Stouffer and Chris Ciotti. Stouffer, who is tied for 11th in the NAHL with 11 points, has struck for a trio of game-winning markers, while Ciotti (nine points) has amassed a plus-6 through 10 outings.
Brown’s defensive corps is anchored by veteran Blake Edwards and Grant Gettinger, who have helped hold opponents to one or fewer goals in four of 10 contests.
“We have good leadership, we work hard, and have character,” Brown explained. “We always try to be the hardest-working team. It might not have looked that way early in the season, but we emphasize hard work and a defense-first approach.”
Since relocating to the banks of the mighty Mississippi River, the program has enjoyed tremendous success, posting an otherworldly 211-57-18 record over that time, and claiming a trio of Robertson Cup championships (2007-09) along the way. Last May, the Bandits once again reached the Robertson Cup tournament for a fourth consecutive year, finishing fifth nationally.
Brown insists that showing isn’t up to the organization’s standards. In short, the bar has been set higher than the Gateway Arch.
“We come out expecting to win every year,” Brown said. “That’s the goal. And as good a year as we had last year, there was a failure on my end to bring it (a title) home. Now, we’re back and working hard towards that goal, and we’ve got a chance - like six-to-10 other teams out there do as well.”
History will decide whether the Bandits have reached “dynasty” status, but the program already has the fourth-most championships in the NAHL’s 35-year history, trailing only Compuware (11), Paddock Pools (seven) and Texas (four).
And as Brown & Co. chase the club’s fourth crown, they’ll gladly relocate to whatever region of the league footprint that divisional realignment demands.
“I don’t know; ask me again in January and February,” Brown joked. “We used to go south to Texas and the warmth. Now we’re heading north to Michigan and the snow.”
CHICAGO HITMEN: The first-year Hitmen dug its inaugural victory so much they decided to try it again - twice. Less than a week after knocking off Motor City for the first win in team history, Chicago swept a series at Port Huron, including a 13-goal eruption on Friday. Nine different players scored in that contest, led by James Albrecht’s hat trick.
JANESVILLE JETS: The Jets kept pace with division-leading St. Louis over the weekend, splitting a pair of 5-2 games with Motor City. Janesville remains just a point behind the Bandits in the standings, with a trio of games at Springfield on the docket. Ross Mauermann keyed the Saturday triumph with a pair of goals and an assist.
MICHIGAN WARRIORS: The Warriors visit Chicago this weekend for a two-game series, but will settle into their new digs in the greater Flint, Mich. area with a protracted homestand after that. Michigan will welcome St. Louis, Motor City, Traverse City and Port Huron to Perani Arena for eight of the subsequent 10 contests.
MOTOR CITY METAL JACKETS: There’s consistency, and there’s Cody Wydo’s early-season explosion. With points in seven of eight games, the Wyandotte, Mich., product has 11 points in his last six outings, with a five game goal-scoring streak that finally came to an end on Saturday against Janesville. Wydo is tied for sixth in scoring among NAHL skaters, and his nine-goal total is third-most.
PORT HURON FIGHTING FALCONS: Nearly 1,300 fans took in the Falcons’ first-ever home contest on Friday, with nearly as many stuffing McMorran Arena the following night for the Falcons’ return engagement with Chicago. Max Douglas will go down in team lore as the first player to notch a home goal, registering a power-play marker less than two minutes into the inaugural affair.
SPRINGFIELD JR. BLUES: Quinnipiac recruit Jack Callahan, a 20-year-old from Red Bank, N.J., figured in all three Jr. Blues goals in Springfield’s 3-2 victory over St. Louis on Friday (goal, two assists), including the overtime game-winner.
TRAVERSE CITY NORTH STARS: The North Stars had the weekend off, and have played a division-low five games so far this season. The Stars head to Port Huron next weekend before hosting Springfield in the club’s home-opening weekend Oct. 14-16.