The Long Beach Bombers are one of the rare teams that have never dominated but at the same time have never been known as a pushover in the Western States Hockey League.
Teams don't see the Bombers on the schedule and automatically see it as an easy win, nor do they expect to a tough game. They're one of those in-betweeners that seem to match their compete level to that of their opponents, which is great when they're playing some of the elite teams in the league but not so great when facing teams they should run out of the building.
For years, it seems the Bombers have been mired in mediocrity but second-year head coach Chris White believes that will all change this season.
In their first year under White, the Bombers didn't go out and light the league on fire or even qualify for the post-season but the rookie head coach was able to implement not only his systems and hockey theories but also what he expects of his players, in terms of both attitude and dedication.
It was very apparent to those who have watched the Bombers for years that the 2011-2012 team was much more structured than in years past and were able to adapt to the varied styles of their different opponents.
When it was all said and done, an undisciplined Bombers squad finished the season with a record of 16-27-3, missing the playoffs by 13 points.
The best example of their inconsistency can be exploited in just two games.
On one hand, they showed they could play with the league's best when they beat the Idaho Jr. Steelheads in November and at the other end of the spectrum was a loss to the lowly Park City Moose.
White chalks up the inconsistency and poor play to a lack of commitment and feels as though perennial powers like Idaho and El Paso set themselves apart from the rest of the league in not only the talent on their rosters but the business-like way in which their players go about preparing and playing hockey.
He made a good point, telling me that it's tough for a team like the Bombers, who recruit predominately in Southern California, to get their players away from distractions that inevitably come when staying at home, whereas players that billet in El Paso and Idaho can focus solely on hockey.
This season, White feels he has a solid core of veterans returning that both understand his system and know how to better prepare themselves for a long season of hockey, which begins with working harder off the ice.
If they can lead by example and help some of the rookies learn what it takes to play hockey at this level, the Bombers will have a very good chance of nabbing one of the four playoff spots in the Pacific Division, while growing as a team.
Players Moving Up:
White is excited to have a handful of players from last season's squad moving on to college hockey, even if most of them are only playing club.
He expressed to me that although it's nice to move guys on to Division III or even Division I NCAA hockey, he feels the main concern should be getting an education and if his players can play hockey at any level while receiving that education, it's an experience they shouldn't pass up.
Defenseman Brian White and goaltender Salvatore Tecci are the only two players moving on to play Division III college hockey this fall. Both will play in the state of Massachusetts, as White is headed to Curry College in Milton and Tecci will suit-up at Worcester State University.
Johnny and Timmy Linehan will both play ACHA club hockey at the University of California at Berkeley, Justin Hopkinson will play club at Mercyhurst and captain Billy Bormann will be at Alvernia University in Pennsylvania.
White is excited to have a good core of returners on offense and likes the fact that he has veterans at every level, not just type-line players.
Johnny Linehan is the groups' unquestionable leader, as he returns for his fifth season with the team.
It's an interesting situation, as just like his brother Timmy did last year, Johnny will be jettisoning from the bay area to Long Beach on most weekends, as he will also be attending UC Berkeley.
White said they have the schedule all worked out and that Linehan will be able to make about 80% of the games. It's an odd situation but I guess 80% of Linehan is better than zero, as he's a proven goal scorer in the league and the type of players coaches covet.
Eric LaPorte returns for his third year with the Bomb-squad after finishing second on the team with 19 goals last season.
LaPorte, who is described as a pure goal scorer that isn't afraid to go into the dirty areas, is a guy that White expects to have a breakout year and continue to assert himself as a top offensive forward.
A guy that White believes can become a very similar player to LaPorte, is Tyler Forest, who put up 22 points as a rookie last season. White likes his skating abilities and feels he can be good at playing the agitator role, while also chipping in offensively when needed, adding some much-needed depth to a historically top-heavy Long Beach lineup.
David Shaby is another high-energy returner that White feels can have a great season. He's always moving when he's on the ice, so much so that White sometimes has to tell him to tone it down a bit.
There are two new players that White feels will step right in and grab a top-six forward spot.
The first is Swedish forward Mads Nystrand, who is described as a big body that consistently puts himself in the right spot to score goals. One of those guys that can score out of pile-ups in front of the net, or break in all alone and rip one home.
The other skilled rookie is a local kid by the name of Kyle Orgel.
White saw the La Selects' product about a year ago and viewed him as more of a project but was pleasantly surprised this summer when he saw that Orgel had blossomed into a top-line player.
One thing White really wants out of his forward group this year is depth, as he feels teams have been able to key in on the Bombers top one or two lines in recent years.
Stephen White (no relation to Chris) began last season as one of the top forwards on the Bombers' roster but just didn't feel right at the center position.
Near the midpoint of the season, they decided to try and make him into a defenseman and the move immediately paid dividends.
He was one of the best defenseman on the Long Beach roster the rest of the way, playing responsibly in his own end while also keeping up the offensive numbers he had been putting up as a forward.
This season, he's expected to have more of a leadership role, while continuing to be one of the top offensive d-men in the league.
Guy LaPorte, the younger brother of Eric, has also returned for another year with the Bombers.
He's not as offensive as White but is a good skater who doesn't mind playing the physical game, especially in front of the net. He's steady enough to be used in all situations and is tough enough to go against much bigger players.
Kurtis Peterson is a big, lanky defenseman that comes over from the Glacier Nationals of the Northern Pacific Hockey League. He impressed White and the rest of the coaching staff at their main camp, with a couple of bone-jarring hits.
He's still a little raw but White believes he will round out as the year goes along.
Lastly, Giovanni Grasso is a kid out of Spokane that White has really taken a liking to. They may choose to use him on the power play and attempt to mold him into a Stephen White-type player, creating another offensive weapon on the backend.
Last season, the Bombers thought goaltending would be their strength when they brought in former NAHL netminder Salvatore Tecci.
Tecci battled through injuries for most of the season and the handful of backups didn't quite live up to expectations.
This season, White has gone out and picked up four solid goaltenders who should help solve the crease problem for him.
The favorite to win the starter's job is another product of the LA Selects program, 1996 birth-year Brian Parsons.
Although he's younger, Parsons is known as a big goaltender that takes up most of the net and plays poised like a veteran.
The other guy battling it out for the top spot is Jiri Sykora, who White found this summer while scouting in the Czech Republic.
He's very similar to Parsons in the fact that he's a big goaltender who can rely on his size to make saves but he's much more experienced.
The third goaltender spot is up for grabs as well, as White has brought in two capable guys to battle for the third spot much like Parsons and Sykora will for the starter's job.
Although playing in a division with two first-year teams would seem to give the Bombers a better chance of making the playoffs, White didn't seem overly excited about it.
The new Pacific Division still includes the Fresno Monsters, San Diego Gulls and Valencia Flyers, who White knows will all be solid again. He also feels as though the first-year Ontario Avalanche and Bay Area Seals won't be doormats either, as the areas in which they play aren't exactly thin on talent.
What White was excited for however, was how far California hockey has come in the past 20 years, going from a place where very little high-level hockey was played, to having a six-team division at the Junior A level.
He also likes both the withstanding rivalries and the new ones that are sure to form with teams recruiting many of the same players.
He thinks the non-divisional games are great too, as he likes to see how his team stacks up against players and teams from out of the area.
It seems the pieces to the puzzle have finally come together for the Bombers heading into the 2012-2013 season and they seem ready to detonate on the rest of the Pacific Division.
Brent Maranto is the Director of Communications for the Western States Hockey League