As a sportswriter and a fan I am much about the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League.
Having said that, I can hardly wait for the return of the North American Hockey League to the neck of the woods that I call home.
Sault Ste. Marie has been without an NAHL team since 2005 when the Soo Indians -- who were owned by Kewadin Casinos -- ceased operations.
I followed the Indians during their NAHL days. Very-well coached by Joe Shawhan -- now an assistant with the Division 1, Northern Michigan University Wildcats -- the Indians were a perennial NAHL contender.
During the 1997-98 and 1998-99 seasons, the Indians were backstopped by goalie Ryan Miller. Miller then went on to play D1 with the Michigan State University Spartans and has become one of the National Hockey League's top goalies with the Buffalo Sabres.
Before Miller, a player who I watched closely was mammoth winger Michael Rupp, who stood out for the now-defunct Cleveland Barons during the 1996-97 NAHL season. Rupp went on to become a first-round Ontario Hockey League draft pick of the Windsor Spitfires before being dealt to the Erie Otters. Rupp has since gone on to play more than 550 NHL games with several NHL teams.
Well, the NAHL has grown in leaps and bounds since the Indians and Barons left and the well-run junior league will again have a presence in Sault Ste. Marie effective the 2012-13 season. Soo Eagles have purchased the Traverse City North Stars franchise and are leaving the NOJHL for the NAHL.
As noted, I am an advocate of the NOJHL and my coverage of it is not going to change. But I am looking forward to writing up the Eagles and their NAHL opponents first hand as part of my junior hockey scribbles.
I am also looking forward to meeting, in person, coaches who I have talked to a number of times on the phone for Sault This Week and Juniorhockey.com stories -- guys like Moe Mantha of the Michigan Warriors, Bill Warren of the Port Huron Fighting Falcons and Marc Fakler of the Kalamazoo Jr. K-Wings. I have also interviewed a few owners already, like Pat McEachern of the Warriors and Maribeth Hayes of the Fighting Falcons, and hope to meet up with them at some point.
But it's the games and live action of the NAHL that I am anticipating come the 2012-13 campaign.
I watched a number of NAHL late-season and playoff games this spring -- mostly ones involving the Warriors, Fighting Falcons and Jr. K-Wings -- on Fasthockey.com but there is nothing like the live action of the rink, particularly when the venue is Pullar Stadium in the Soo.
Ah, Pullar Stadium.
It is a rink like no other I have seen in 35-plus years of covering junior hockey. Simply put, the 70-year old Pullar is a treasured jewel.
If you have never been to the Pullar, which is located on Portage Ave. in downtown Soo, Michigan, you just have to experience the thrill of a junior game played in it.
I am anxious to see how the Eagles adapt to the NAHL. To be sure, I have no doubt that the team will be properly-run led by no-nonsense coach-general manager Bruno Bragagnolo.
As a general manager, I doubt that Bragagnolo will be out-foxed or out-worked. As a coach, he's a keep-it-simple kind of guy who respects the game and has his players well-prepared and well-taught.
Personally, I'd take Bragagnolo and his managerial approach over a more-talented team that lacks discipline and is managed by someone who has a "win-at-all-cost" mentality and turns a blind eye and deaf ear to trouble.
I really, really like the NOJHL.
But there is plenty of room in my junior hockey coverage file for the NAHL.