The Abitibi Eskimos will have a familiar face back in the lineup when they kick off the second half of their Northern Ontario Junior ‘A’ Hockey League schedule in Kirkland Lake Friday.
Eskimos coach and general manager Paul Gagne confirmed on Thursday that Marc-Alain Begin, the team’s leading scorer, is returning to the lineup after a 13-game stint with the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Rouyn-Noranda Huskies.
“Ecstatic,” is the word Gagne chose to describe his feelings about getting Begin back.
“He is a great player and, not only that, he is a great leader on the ice and off the ice,” he said.
“The younger guys look up to him. He’s not just talented, he brings more to the table than anybody else.
“He is a competitor and he’s got a nastiness. We play little games in practice and he competes … he doesn’t want to lose … and other players, when they see that, they do the same thing.”
Begin put up respectable numbers in his time with the Huskies — three goals and six assists — but those stats pale in comparison with what did at the start of the 2011-12 campaign with the Eskimos.
His 67 points — 21 goals and 46 assists — rank him fourth in scoring in the NOJHL, even though he missed 11 games while he was with Rouyn-Noranda.
“He’s a smart player,” Gagne said. “He knows he is talented, but he won’t cut corners. He plays within our program.
“If the game is close he comes back and plays defensive hockey, as well.”
The return of Begin will go a long way toward providing some stability to an Eskimos lineup that is a state of flux with Tuesday’s trade deadline looming.
Gagne continues to scour the rosters of teams from coast to coast in hopes of adding a couple of more players.
“We are trying to get two more players who can really make a difference,” he said.
That need became even more acute during practice at the Jus Jordan Arena Tuesday night when 16-year-old defenceman Kealey Cummings suffered a “serious” shoulder injury.
“He is going to be diagnosed today sometime,” Gagne said.
“But it’s his shoulder and it doesn’t look good.”
Cummings was one of four Eskimos players who took part in the recent 2011 Central Canada Cup All-Star Challenge inSmithsFalls.
In 29 games this season, the defenceman has six goals and seven assists.
The only other Eskimo currently on the injured list is forward Chris Gartner, who broke his hand in the 10th game of the season.
Gartner, an Anthem, Az., native, has been skating at home and is expected back in Iroquois Falls sometime next week.
In 10 games, Gartner has one goal and six assists.
“He is shooting, skating and getting in shape,” Gagne said.
“And he has been getting therapy every day, so we are hoping that he’ll be in 100% shape within a week, or two.”
The Eskimos, and all other teams, have to reduce their rosters from 25 to 23 players by midnight Tuesday.
“There is a lot happening right now,” Gagne said.
“There is a lot of discussions, but nothing concrete.
“We would like to add two to three players.”
Another former Eskimo playing in the QMJHL is forward Eric Robichaud with the Moncton Wildcats, but chances of him being returned to the Eskimos appear to be remote.
Robichaud was the Eskimos top scorer during the 2010-11 season.
Cummings won’t be the only player missing from the lineup when the Eskimos take to the ice in Kirkland Lake Friday night.
The team has released forward Preston Lacasse and forward Delmer Moses has yet to return from the Christmas break.
Lacasse had 11 goals and 21 assists in 22 games with the Eskimos this season.
“We would like to trade him,” Gagne said. “We are trying to, but the trade offers have been ineffective.”
Moses, meanwhile, has nine goals and 22 assists in 31 games with Abitibi.
New Liskeard Cub forward Trevor MacDonald and Timmins Majors defenceman Ryan Kerr will be added for this weekend’s games.
MacDonald has one goal in three games with the Eskimos this season, while Kerr was held off the scoresheet in his only other appearance with Abitibi.
If the Eskimos can pick up four points this weekend, it will go a long way torward helping them close ground on the Eastern Divsion Cubs who are nine points ahead of Abitibi and have one game in hand.
Winning in KirklandLakeon Friday, against the improved Blue Devils, or on home ice at the Jus Jordan Arena against the Cubs on Saturday will not come easy, however.
“We just went into a little funk there for a while,” Gagne said. “It happens, with injuries and suspensions.
“We need to show leadership and start playing Eskis hockey … aggressive hockey and putting pressure on the puck.”