IROQUOIS FALLS - The Abitibi Eskimos kick off their exhibition season at the Jus Jordan Arena Saturday night.
It will be a good opportunity for coach and general manager Paul Gagne to get a good look at how the team’s leadership performs under game conditions.
Captain Kevin Walker returns to the Eskimos lineup after suffering a potentially career-threatening injury during the playoffs last season.
Walker took over the captaincy when Richard Therrien left the team after the Christmas break.
“He cares, that’s No. 1,” Gagne said.
“He is a good person and he cares what’s happening in the dressing room.
“He cares about our program on the ice. Win, or lose, he feels responsible.
“He is like another coach. When he is in the dressing room he motivates the players.”
On the ice, Walker has rebounded well following his injury.
“He has been going for therapy and he says he is ready to play right now,” Gagne said.
“He has been texting me saying he can’t wait to get on the ice.
“He is really looking forward to this season.”
For his part, Walker feels honoured to have been chosen as captain of the Eskimos.
“You really have to go out there and work hard and try to set an example for the younger guys,” he said.
Walker feels more comfortable having spent part of the 2012-13 campaign with the C, instead of just being named captain at the start of this season.
“I learned a lot from Richard Therrien over the years,” he said.
“He taught me a lot about what it means to be a leader, so it’s definitely nice to be able to ease into it and get a feel for it.”
Gagne feels that Ryan Tront will also be able to provide some leadership.
“Last year he came in a little later, from a different program, but I think he is really going to come out of his shell,” Gagne said.
“He really played well for us during the playoffs, so we are expecting good results from him this year.”
Tront showed an ability to put the team first by diving in front of shots and playing whatever role Gagne and the coaching staff needed him to play.
Walker feels a couple of other veterans can be counted on to provide leadership this season, as well.
“I think (Ryan) Wildman will be a good help,” he said.
“I think (Zach) Innes will be a help, as well.
“A lot of the older guys know what it takes to win and they know how to set an example and work hard out there.”
The Eskimos have not yet named their assistant captains for the 2013-14 NOJHL?season.
Walker feels it is going to be important for the Eskimos to get off to a good start this season, to help build the team’s confidence.
“It’s really important to set the tone early on in the season and go out there and let the other teams know that sure we had a slow year last season, but this year is a new year and we really want to work hard,” he said.
Walker feels it will be a little easier for the Eskimos to get off to a good start because of the number of veteran players the team has coming back.
“We had a pretty young team last year,” he said.
“I think we had only one 20 year old and if you look around the room right now you will find we have quite a few of them and experience is a key, I think, in winning hockey games.”
The team the Gold Miners bring to the Jus Jordan Arena for Saturday night’s exhibition game will be far different than the one Kirkland?Lake iced during the 2012-13 season.
Only eight players from that squad — goaltender Marc Audet, defencemen Jeremy Picard-Fiset, Dan Morin and Ethan Strong, along with forwards Tanner Lafrance, Kyle Bishop, Steven Babin and Everett Thompson — have been signed, so far.
The Gold Miners have added goaltender Jessie Morin (New Liskeard Cubs, GNML), defencemen Jake Mottershaw (Caledon Golden Hawks, GMOHL), Tyler Ploeg (Grand Haven High, USHS), Matthew Whidden (Bradford Bulls, GMHL) and Luke Meade (Rosemount High, USHS), along with forwards Garret Nichol (Almonte Thunder, EOJHL), Cray Roberge (Blind River Beavers, NOJHL), Mathieu Lecompte (Sainte-Foy Dynamiques, CAHS), Alex Hulford (Stittsville Royals, EOJHL), Austin Rust (Rochester Ice Hawks, MNJHL), Andrew Bertrand (Centennial High, USHS), Cassey Drolet (Rouyn-Noranda Citadelles, QMAA) and Jake Zarzycki (Rochester Ice Hawks, MNJHL).
Game time for Saturday’s contest at the Jus Jordan Arena is 7:30 p.m., while Sunday’s game in Kirkland Lake will also start at 7:30 p.m.