There are stories in the making. Expectations have been set and hopes are high, as they should be. Afterall, all teams currently have win-loss records of 0-0, all skaters are tied for the scoring lead and every goalie has a save percentage of 1.000 and a goals against average of 0.00.
2012-13 regular-season play in both the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League and the North American Hockey League begins the first week of September. And here are a few storylines just waiting for more content to be added.
* Elliot Lake Bobcats are the newest addition to the NOJHL and figure to be fierce foes with the nearby Blind River Beavers. The towns of Elliot Lake and Blind River are a mere 35 miles apart and their shinny rivalry dates back to the early 1970s when they were members of the erstwhile International Jr. B Hockey League.
The Bobcats may be new to the NOJHL but as a franchise, are fresh from a successful five-year run in the non-sanctioned Greater Metro Jr. Hockey League that included a championship season. The Beavers, on the other hand, are coming off their worst season in 10 years, having won just 8 of 54 games during the 2011-12 campaign, playoffs included.
Attendance has been on the decline in Blind River the past few seasons but figures to get a spark with neighbouring Elliot Lake now part of the NOJHL. This is a looming rivalry that could become nasty and nice, all in one.
What is also notable is that new Blind River coach Doug McEwen was born and raised in Elliot Lake and played minor hockey there. And if that isn't enough, before moving to Elliot Lake to start the Bobcats franchise as owner-general manager-coach, Ryan Leonard was an assistant in Blind River for four seasons.
* As defending champions who have lost impact players to graduation that include scoring leader Micky Sartoretto and goaltending sensation John Kleinhans, Soo Thunderbirds are not expected to duplicate their showing of 2011-12 in which they won both the NOJHL and Dudley Hewitt Cup, Central Canada titles.
But while they may not be as dominant on the ice this season as they were last, the fact is that off the ice, the Thunderbirds have been adding to their fan base over the past few years. Average attendance has increased from 244 in 2009-10 to 301 in 2010-11 to 399 in 2011-12.
Attendance figures to go up again in 2012-13 when the Thunderbirds play all of their home games at the spacious, fan-friendly Essar Centre that also houses the Ontario Hockey League Soo Greyhounds.
After years of playing in the bandbox that is John Rhodes Community Centre and its poor sightlines, the Thunderbirds split home dates at both the Rhodes and Essar in 2011-12. While averaging about 200 fans per game at the Rhodes, the Thunderbirds drew an average of close to 600 spectators per outing at the Essar.
Will the move to the Essar for all home games this season push the Thunderbirds overall average attendance to the 600 mark? It could, especially with the new balanced schedule in which all seven teams will play one another eight times as opposed to previous seasons when the Thunderbirds, for example, would play Blind River on 12 or 13 occasions.
What also remains to be seen is if the departure of the Michigan-based Soo Eagles from the NOJHL to the NAHL will affect Thunderbird attendance.
* After four years in the NOJHL -- including the 2010-11 season championship -- the Eagles of Sault Ste. Marie have left the nest for the NAHL.
Having purchased the Traverse City North Stars franchise this past spring, the Eagles will take up residence in an NAHL North Division that has expanded from five to eight teams.
Coach-general manager Bruno Bragagnolo disputes the notion that the Eagles are moving up a level from the NOJHL to the NAHL. "The NOJHL is a good league that is under-rated. It doesn't have the high profile that the NA has but it's a good league that as you know, sends a lot of players to the OHL every year," he told me.
Still, Bragagnolo is excited to be a part of the NAHL and the reputation it has for sending players to the Division 1, National Collegiate Athletic Association ranks. From the 2011-12 season alone, a whopping 120 NAHL players received Division 1, NCAA commitments.
On the ice, Bragagnolo is working on finalizing his roster with the Eagles main camp set to begin on August 17.
Off the ice, corporate sponsorship is said to be well ahead of what the Eagles were able to sell when they were a part of the NOJHL.
What remains to be seen is how the Eagles will draw at the Pullar Stadium box office. The Eagles averaged 638 fans during the 2011-12 NOJHL season, which was second only to North Bay Trappers, whose average attendance was 664 per game.
For the record, Traverse City drew an average of 440 fans per game during its last NAHL season, the 2011-12 campaign.
* I have said this before and I will say it again: Barring injury, look for mighty mite right winger Dallas McLaughlin to make an impact in the NAHL with the Eagles this season.
The 1993 birth year forward potted 36 goals in 48 games for the Eagles during the 2011-12 NOJHL season and also led the team in penalty minutes with 67.
McLaughlin should take to the NAHL from the NOJHL just as Easton Powers did with Port Huron Fighting Falcons during the 2011-12 season.
Powers, a 1992 birth year left winger, had 39 points, including 16 goals, with Blind River Beavers during the 2010-11 season. Powers then moved to the NAHL with Port Huron for the 2011-12 season and put up 37 points, including 15 goals.
If Powers can basically produce in the NAHL at the same rate as he did in the NOJHL, then I don't see why McLaughlin won't either.
In fact, with all due respect to Powers, he wasn't what I would call an impact player during his one NOJHL season. McLaughlin, though, definitely was an impact guy with his 36 goals and 67 points, which put him among the NOJHL's Top 10 scorers.
* Besides the Eagles, there is much that will be new to the NAHL for the 2012-13 season.
Alaska Avalanche is no more, its franchise having been purchased by a group that includes National Football League Hall of Famer Jack Ham and moved to Johnstown, Pa. Johnstown and its Cambria County War Memorial Arena were the site of the 1977 box office hit 'Slapshot' and the fictional Charlestown Chiefs.
The new Johnstown Tomahawks will make their NAHL debut this coming season and play in the NAHL North along with the Eagles and another new-look franchise, the Springfield Jr. Blues. The Blues have a new owner in Dan Ferguson and a new coach-general manager in former Notre Dame Fighting Irish goalie Tony Zasowski. Zasowski has forged a reputation as a top-notch head coach from his work with the San Jose Jr. Sharks AAA minor hockey program.
Among what else is new to the NAHL is the Wisconsin-based Coulee Region Chill where leading lady Michelle Bryant takes over as primary owner with John Hamre her hand-picked coach-general manager.
Hamre, a former prep school mathematics teacher (he even looks like a math teacher) is well schooled as a hockey coach, having been an NAHL assistant with the Michigan Warriors as well as with three different NCAA Division 1 programs.
As Soo Eagles are a story in the making, so too are new chapters just waiting to be written in Johnstown, Springfield and Coulee Region.