Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Road-weary North Stars come home

For 40 days and 40 nights, the Traverse City North Stars have toiled on the road, playing games in Ann Arbor, Alpena, and Youngtown, Ohio. On Friday, the team comes home to Centre ICE for a two-game series with North Division rival Mahoning Valley. Finally.

“It’s a relief to get back here,” said North Stars head coach/GM Scott Gardiner (left). “For any team, that’s a long time to be on the road, and it’s taken its toll on us, no question. We need to get back in our own building and start getting our confidence back, and good things will happen.”

North Stars forward Jared Mullen, who is tied for the team scoring lead with 11 goals and 14 assists, says that such a long road swing can affect a team’s mood.

“Truthfully, it gets kind of depressing getting on and off the bus so often,” he said. “After a month and a half, it’ll be pretty exciting to be at home with our own fans.”

The club started the new year in style, taking five of a possible six points over a long weekend in Ann Arbor against the Team USA Under-17s and in Alpena against the IceDiggers from Jan. 12-15. Then came the disastrous road trip to Youngstown for the North American Hockey League’s North Division Showcase, where Traverse City drew a tough four-game set against the Team USA U-18s and first place Cleveland. The team limped out of The Ice Zone with an 0-4 mark, but started to turn things around on Sunday with a narrow 2-1 setback to Cleveland. The Phantoms are the only team in the division that the North Stars haven’t beat this season.

“They play a very physical game, and they have a line that’s as good as any in the NAHL in (Anthony) Ciraulo, (Marc) Manzione, and (Drew) Satterly,” Gardiner explained. “Plus, they have a big, stay-at-home group of defensemen that really play well together. We haven’t gotten them yet, but we haven’t played them at home yet, either.”

Fans who last saw Traverse City on Dec. 18 when the North Stars hosted Cleveland will have a few new players to cheer for on Friday and Saturday. Gone are defenseman Luc Du Bay, the team’s first-ever draft pick, and forward Danny Dries. Du Bay was dealt to Billings of the NAHL’s West Division at the Jan. 15 trade deadline, while Dries returned to the midget major level. His injured knee hadn’t fully healed, and all parties agreed that spending time with the Victory Honda midget club would be in the best interest of everyone involved.

New faces include the high-scoring tandem of forwards Ryan Bond and Joe Schweiger, who set the Junior B Central States Hockey League on fire earlier this season. As linemates, Bond posted 14 goals and 23 assists in 42 games with the Motor City Chiefs, while Schweiger registered 21 goals and 17 helpers in just 24 outings. Bond saw action in the team’s Dec. 18 loss to Cleveland at Centre ICE, but will hopefully be reunited with Schweiger in front of the home fans this weekend. Schweiger is still recuperating from a second-degree shoulder separation, but hopes to play against the Phantoms.

In addition, forwards Mike Sand and Sal Ragusa will both meet the Centre ICE arena faithful for the first time this weekend. Sand, a Port Huron-area native, came to the Stars from the same Belle Tire midget major program that produced current TC players Jared Mullen and Jonathan Juliano. Ragusa, who hails from Greensboro, N.C., spent 2004-05 with the midget major Florida Everblades.

“We’ve gotten younger,” Gardiner explained. “We’re trying to stay strong, but also to position ourselves for next year and beyond.”

Both Friday and Saturday games are set for 7:30 p.m. face-offs at Centre ICE arena.

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