IROQUOIS FALLS - The Abitibi Eskimos will kick off the 2013-14 Northern Ontario Junior ‘A’ Hockey League regular season campaign in Sudbury.
Following that game on Sept. 4, however, the Eskimos will play six-straight games on home ice.
The first of those games will be on Saturday, Sept. 7, when the NOJHL’s newest entry, the yet-to-be-named Espanola franchise pays a visit to the Jus Jordan Arena.
And with the addition of Espanola, the Eskimos will play a 56-game schedule (28 home) during the 2013-14 season, up from 48 (24 home) last season.
“Getting a 56-game schedule is great at our level,” said Eskimos president Scott Marshall.
“Eight teams, a balanced schedule, it’s all good.”
The league had considered going back to a two-division format like it had the last time it iced eight teams, but thought better of the idea.
“There was some discussion of going back to an East-West format with more games against your own division, and obviously we would be in the East, but at the end of the day everybody decided for fan interest and credibility we are going to go with a balanced schedule,” Marshall said.
“And whatever happens for the playoffs, in the way of standings, that’s the way it is.”
Under the new set up all eight teams will make the playoffs, with the first-place team taking on the eighth-place finisher, the second-place team facing off against the seventh-place finisher, the third-place team meeting the sixth place finisher and the fourth-place team hosting the fifth-place finisher.
Regardless of how strong the Thunderbirds are this season, Marshall is hoping that the Eskimos do not draw the Soo in the first round of the playoffs this year like they did in 2012-13.
“It’s not so much in terms of opponent,” Marshall said.
“(Head coach and general manager) Paul (Gagne) will tell you we will play whomever, wherever.
“It’s just the travel costs. The first round of the playoffs last year, we lost money because of the travel costs involved.”
Attendance for Eskimos’ home games was down slightly during the 2012-13 season, but Marshall hopes the six early home games will give the squad some momentum.
“We are pretty confident we are going to have a pretty good team this year,” he said.
“And we want to get the interest in the team established right away.”
Getting off to a better start on the ice than last year will be one of the keys to getting fans into the seats at the Jus Jordan Arena in Iroquois Falls and the McIntyre Arena in Timmins.
With that in mind, the Eskimos have made commitments to a handful of players prior to the start of training camp, which runs Aug. 6-9 at the Whitney Arena in Timmins.
“We have kind of changed our philosophy a little bit,” Marshall said.
“Typically in the past, we would get inquiries from players and we would invite them to camp and we wouldn’t make any commitments until we got to camp.
“And what was happening is even though players wanted to come here, they would worry that they would wait for our camp and then find out they weren’t going to make the roster and be left holding the bag.
“So, what we decided to do this year was that the kids who had good resumes, that had strong references from former coaches, we would make that commitment.”
That change has resulted in the addition of forwards Brady Clouthier (Brampton Bombers), Marc Dube (Kapuskasing Flyers), Tommy Labrecque (Trenton Habs) and defenceman Will Wickersham (Richmond Generals).
Dube, the younger brother of Eskimos assistant coach and assistant GM Dan Dube, finished sixth in the Great North Midget League scoring race during the 2012-13 campaign, scoring 22 goals and adding 43 assists in 34 regular season games.
He added four goals and three assists in 11 playoff contests.
“Marc is a great player and once he gets acclimatized he is going to be a standout,” Marshall said.
“We are very pleased to have him on board.
“Dan was one of my favourite players, ever, for the Eskimos and Marc is in the same mold. We are really looking forward to seeing Marc play this year.”
Clouthier and Labrecque should also provide a boost to the Eskimos’ offence.
Clouthier had 20 goals and 23 assists in 49 regular season games with the Bombers, while Labrecque had 30 goals and 21 assists in 42 regular season games with the Habs.
Wickersham is also capable of supplying offence from the back end, as he had seven goals and 23 assists in 44 regular season games with the Generals.
The Eskimos are expecting between 35-40 players to take part in the training camp in early August.
“Some of the veteran players won’t be attending that camp due to work commitments,” Marshall said. “That’s okay, because it gives us more time to evaluate the hopefuls.”
The Eskimos main camp will get underway on Aug. 19, with a number of players from the initial camp being brought in to participate.
“We will make a lot of decisions in the first camp, though, especially for players who are travelling,”?Marshall said.
“For example, we are not going to have a kid from Michigan here for the week of Aug. 6, have him go home for a week and then come back and say ‘you know what, it’s just not working out.’ We wouldn’t do that. The vast majority of the players who come back for Aug. 19 will be signed.”
The Eskimos will once again play a home-and-home exhibition series with the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners as they prepare for the regular season.
They will meet at the Jus Jordan Arena in Iroquois Falls on Saturday, Aug. 24, and then at the Joe Mavrinac Community Complex in Kirkland Lake on Sunday, Aug. 25.
Both games are scheduled to start at 7:30 p.m