By Alex Kyrias, NAHL
Fresh off a 3rd place finish at the 2010 Robertson Cup National Championship Tournament, the Traverse City North Stars entered the 2010-11 season with a lot of optimism, and what was not to like? The team had a veteran head coach behind the bench, loads of talent up front and a veteran goaltender returning to the net. Needless to say, they did not disappoint.
The North Stars, who had just missed out on a division title the season before, made it clear from the start that they were a team that was going to be a contender. After winning six of their first seven games, Traverse City appeared to be playing their best hockey of the season. Little did everyone know, the best was yet to come.
The final 29 games (or the entire second half of the season) the North Stars lost just six times in regulation and made a serious run at the North Division regular season title. They ended on a 17-3 run finishing one win and five points shy of division-leading St. Louis. Traverse City finished with a franchise record 40 wins and had one of the best home records in the league at 22-6-1.
In the playoffs, the North Stars ran into the buzz saw that was the Michigan Warriors, as they fell in four games, but according to then assistant coach Chad Fournier, the season was nothing but a success. “Last year was a resounding success in our eyes. We had the most wins in franchise history, we were one of the teams with the most players committed to NCAA schools and we also made the playoffs… I consider that a real good year,” said Fournier. “We just ran into a real hot team in the playoffs and a goalie that was the MVP of the league, and sometimes those things happen.”
In mid-May the North Stars announced that long-time head coach Anthony Palumbo was stepping aside to become the general manager and that Fournier would take the head coaching reins. “I’m excited about the opportunity, but know I have big shoes to fill,” said Fournier. “We have had a great tradition of moving players on and I hope that is something I can continue. We have some great relationships with colleges established and it always helps to be a winning team, so my staff will be hard at work maintaining that.”
As Fournier was building the North Stars this summer, one need became clear over all the others… defense. The North Stars lost both goalies from last season and only had two defensemen returning to the line-up. “Defense was something we had to address. Most of our returners are on offense so in the off-season we tried to identify defensemen and goaltenders who could come in a play right away.”
The two new goalies will be Michael Parda, who played for the NA3HL’s Cleveland Jr. Lumberjacks last season and was also named to the 2010-11 NA3HL All-Rookie Team. Kyle Laslo will be the other goaltender. Laslo played last season for the Osoyoos Coyotes in the KIJHL in Canada where he posted a 1.91 goals against average and a 93.3% save percentage in the regular season.
As far as veterans are concerned, the North Stars have 11 returning players from last year, nine of those at the forward position. The returnees are highlighted by Alec Shields and Eric Rivard. Both are 40+ point scorers from a season ago and both can put the puck in the net. Shields, 20, had 51 points and 20 goals, while Rivard had 17 goals and also had a team-high 117 penalty minutes.
Along the blueline the only two returners are Chris Leibinger and Robert Wiener. “They both didn’t play the entire season last year, but they got enough time and experience in to be leaders on our defense corps this year.” Leibinger, who just turned 17 this summer, had six points in 41 games last season. Wiener, 20, had three points in 43 games, but has turned heads already this season through training camp and the North Stars first three exhibition games. “Robert has already stepped up in a very short period of time as a leader on and off the ice, and is really helping oour young guys out,” said Fournier.
With 11 veterans back on the roster, it’s not a question of if the Traverse City North Stars will make the playoffs, but can they finally win that regular season division title they have come so close to winning and continue to be considered a viable and legitimate threat to win the Robertson Cup in May?
Next up in the NAHL’s 28 teams in 28 days series, the Wenatchee Wild.