Friday, July 29, 2011

North Stars ready to go camping

In an ever-changing junior hockey landscape, the Traverse City North Stars will have fewer intradivisional neighbors this season.

With the departure of Chicago, St. Louis, Springfield, and Janesville to the newly-congealed Midwest Division, the North is sporting a five-team alignment for 2011-12. Traverse City, Michigan, and Port Huron return from a year ago, along with first-year franchise Kalamazoo. The Motor City Metal Jackets moved to Jamestown, N.Y. in the off-season, but will remain in the North Division.

“That’s just how it is with a growing league,” said North Stars head coach Chad Fournier. “As the footprint continues to grow and evolve, it’s just a natural consequence. This alignment does cut down some on travel, but we still have trips to Janesville, Chicago and Jamestown.”

The five-team setup also increases the percentage of teams qualifying for the playoffs. While only half – four of eight – made the North Division playoffs in 2010-11, eighty percent of the North (Four of five) will make the postseason this time around.

“That takes a little bit of the pressure off, the way it has in other divisions with only five teams in years past,” Fournier continued. “The learning curve might not be as steep, but it should once again be a competitive division.”

The North Stars soared to their first-ever 40-win campaign in 2010-11, finished second to St. Louis in the divisional standings, but were ousted by Michigan in the first round of the playoffs, three games to one. Port Huron managed just six wins in 58 tries in their first season, but return a bevy of players with junior-A experience.

“Port Huron is gong to be so much better – in fact, they may be the early favorite,” Fournier explained. “They didn’t have tenders or draft choices last year with the late start they got. They’ve had a full off-season this year, have a new coach, and are bringing back a lot of talent. By the end of last year they had improved immensely.

“In Michigan, you have the national runners-up, and they have a strong program down there, so they’ll be right in it. Jamestown has a great owner and a lot of guys back, so they’ll be strong again as well.”

Fournier, GM Anthony Palumbo, and the coaching staff are busy with the final phase of re-stocking the North Stars’ coffers this weekend at Centre ICE Arena, as draft picks, tenders, returning vets, and the cream of the summer camp crop battle it out for spots during the club’s annual training camp. The weekend will culminate on Sunday with the selection of the 2011-12 roster. More than 50 players converged on Centre ICE on Friday morning for the event, with three teams facing off in scrimmages Friday and Saturday morning. That number will be trimmed to two teams for Saturday evening and Sunday morning all-star games before the team is picked.

“We basically have about 10 players coming back, so it’s pretty wide-open,” Fournier said. “We have a lot of good players here and they’ll get a good, long look.”

LOCALS STOCK CAMP: In addition to the three returning veterans from Traverse City – Eric Rivard, Mitchell Snider, and Jared Van Wormer – at least seven other northern Michigan products were on hand for the opening of training camp: Jacob Peacock (Bay Reps), Frank Gilbert and Carson Omilusik of Traverse City West HS, Cooper Macdonell and Kyle Froese of Traverse City Central, and Alex Grizzel (Belle Tire U16) and Eric Jones (Lansing Capitals U18) who both spent last year in midget programs. Will Badner of Cadillac is also in camp.

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