Junior hockey is back in northern California for the first time since 2009 and judging by the pre-season, it's better than ever.
Owner Chris Collins, who grew up a stones' throw from HP Pavilion (home of the San Jose Sharks, who he eventually worked for) decided to make use of the droves of youth hockey talent in the region and bring the expansion Bay Area Seals into the Western States Hockey League.
Collins is also part of the new ownership group of the Phoenix Coyotes but has always been enamored with the developmental model of the WSHL and wanted to give young players in the area where he grew up a chance to advance and ultimately reach their goal of playing college hockey.
Over the summer, he went to work; building a coaching staff that is both recognizable in the bay area and respected across all levels of hockey.
Zach Lytle, who has coached various levels of Jr. Sharks hockey over the past decade, was named head coach and has already recruited some of his former players to the Seals.
Former NHL tough-guy Steve McKenna acts as the Seals General Manager and Director of Player Personnel, drawing on his many contacts and impressive resume to acquire players from all over the globe and eventually help move them on.
The two, along with Collins, who is as hands on as Jerry Jones, have already built a solid foundation for the foreseeable future.
The team will call the 11,000-seat Cow Palace home, sharing the building with another expansion team, the San Francisco Bulls of the East Coast Hockey League.
The arena, which the San Jose Sharks called home during their first two seasons in the NHL, has recently gone through a multi-million dollar renovation, including a beautiful new video board.
A foundation for success does not always lead to success on the ice but if three pre-season games are any indication, the Seals are well on their way.
Last weekend, they traveled south to play three games in three nights, against two teams that are considered favorites in the Pacific Division.
On Friday, they made the quick trip down to Fresno to take on the three-time Western Division champion Fresno Monsters and skated off with an impressive 4-1 victory.
After the win in Fresno, a tired Seals team bussed further south to Valencia and fought valiantly in two defeats to the Flyers, losing 8-4 on Saturday and 3-2 in overtime on Sunday.
A record of 1-1-1 over a single weekend may not seem earth shattering but for a first-year team to travel to two of the best teams in the division's houses and play each extremely tight, is a great first step and a sign of things to come.
In all three games the Seals never stopped skating and finished every check, something Collins requires his players to do. They proved they were a team to be reckoned with and didn't back down for a second.
It's hard to take anything from the pre-season but the aggressiveness and sheer physicality that the Seals showcased is no fluke, these kids play old school junior hockey.
The Seals aren't going to blow you away offensively, as they're built as a team that wears you down over long weekends, relying on hard work and greasy goals but Collins and Co. have brought in two kids they feel may not be in the WSHL all season.
Josh Mikes and Ryan Webber are both bay area kids who came up through the Jr. Sharks program, that Collins was ecstatic to get his hands on.
Mikes is characterized as a speedster with great hands, who can create offense out of nothing.
Webber is your prototypical power forward; a big kid, who likes to put his head down and go to the net.
Collins feels that if both play up to their potential, they'll each earn a call-up to the Tier II North American Hockey League before season's end.
Casey Mertens is a kid out of Seattle, who Collins brought in after seeing him play youth hockey against his son for years. He's another big, strong, kid that will skate through walls to get to the puck, a guy Steve McKenna will help mold.
Collins is also a big proponent of the youth hockey system in south Florida and has brought in a handful of players from the region.
Two of those guys are Danny Giffone and Sherman Lovett, who are both responsible in all areas, can play in any situations and work their rear ends off every time they touch the ice.
Lastly, Wes Starr is another Bay Area kid who is known for his scoring touch but will have to adapt to the junior game.
With some expansion teams, it's a small miracle if they can field a full roster but not the Seals, as they've already put together a group of forwards that rivals most in the league.
The defensive corps the Seals have put together so far, is very similar to the forwards; a hardworking group of big bodies that excel at both ends of the ice.
The group is led by captain Brian Cochran, who also happens to be a reserve Marine Officer.
As you'd imagine, he's a big guy that likes to lead by example, laying hits and blocking shots and also not afraid to shed the mitts.
Mark DeVaughn comes over after playing last season in the Empire Junior Hockey League and Collins is happy to have him, calling him an "absolute monster" who is big, strong and possesses a cannon of a shot from the point.
They're also excited to see what 6'4" Czech defenseman Ladislav Hruska can do this season. They like his big shot, silky hands and the physical edge he brings to the table.
The group is filled out by more guys that do anything to help the team win, blocking shots, clearing the crease and laying the body, a blue-collar type of attitude.
Another area that first-year programs struggle to find talent is in the crease and again, the Seals have found plenty of it.
Frankie McClendon is yet another local kid and I was impressed with how solid he looked on Sunday in Valencia. He's a roller hockey convert that stepped seamlessly into ice a few years ago and has never looked back.
The job is his to lose and I don't see that happening.
Ethan Loo is currently slotted as the second goaltender in the rotation but definitely has the tools to start in this league. Collins found him at an EJHL showcase this summer and had to have him, as he loved the way he competes and fights to make saves.
Brandon Mercer, another south Florida kid, is the third netminder on the roster and possibly the most athletic player on the team, as he was an All-American in both soccer and track, in high school.
With three game weekends taking their toll throughout the year, it's of the utmost importance that teams have three goaltenders they can trust to win a game anytime and it seems Collins has found just that.
The Seals will play in the all-new Pacific Division, which is made up of only California teams, improving both travel and rivalries.
Collins has already seen Fresno and Valencia and feels both teams will once again be powerful but he also likes how the San Diego Gulls and Long Beach Bombers compete every year. The Ontario Avalanche are the other first-year team in the division and have a very similar makeup to that of the Seals, making the Pacific one of the toughest in the league, on paper.
Despite what transpires over the next six months, it's evident the Seals aren't going to be a team that opponents can rest their starters against, they're a threat to win regardless of who they play.
With their combination of size and speed, the Seals will put to rest the connotation that usually comes with expansion teams.
Brent Maranto is the Director of Communications for the Western States Hockey League
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