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Eskimos welcome Blue Devils

It’s official, the Islanders are moving.

No, not the National Hockey League squad that hangs out on Long Island.

The Manitoulin Islanders of Northern Ontario Junior ‘A’ Hockey League fame are moving to Kirkland Lake, where they will be known as the Blue Devils.

The Northern Ontario Hockey Association announced Tuesday that it has approved the sale of the team to a Kirkland Lake group headed by Bob Kasner and its relocation for the start of the 2011-12 season.

The NOJHL had signed off on the move earlier and the only thing standing in the way of it becoming official had been the NOHA’s agreement.

The move is good news for the Abitibi Eskimos.

“It’s an advantage for us financially, because you are going to have better travel time,” said Paul Gagne, general manager and coach of the Eskimos.

“And knowing the background of Kirkland Lake, it’s a great hockey town and the fans supported midget hockey for years and come playoff time they have always had 400, or 500 people at the games.

“It’s a good combination, great fans a good hockey level.”

And, given the geographical closeness of the two communities it could develop into a Canadiens/Maple Leafs kind of situation.

“It could end up becoming a little rivalry,” Gagne acknowledged.

“And I think the Eskimos will benefit from it and so will Kirkland Lake.

“Having Kirkland Lake in our division, I think, will make a big difference fan wise.”

Over the years, a number of players from Kirkland Lake have played for the Eskimos, including goaltender Cameron MacKinnon who was on the 2010-11 roster and backed up J.P. Fecteau.

Gagne doesn’t anticipate that the arrival of an NOJHL team in Kirkland Lake will have a negative impact on the pool of players the Eskimos have to draw from, however.

“In junior hockey we get players from all over the place,” he said.

“It happens, if we lose players it’s great, but Kirkland Lake’s in the same situation.

“Their ‘AAA’ midget team also recruits players from Timmins, from Northern Ontario … all over the place … that’s not all from Kirkland Lake.

“We are confident. We have a pretty good program.

“Players, they are the ones that make the decision on where they want to play and there are less and less going down south.

“They are staying more in the North now for this type of junior hockey.”

In addition to the benefits for the Eskimos, Gagne is confident the move of the Islanders to Kirkland Lake will be good for the league as a whole.

“You have to think about the league first,” he said.

“We need to upgrade the league, to have more teams and support each other.

“If we support each other we will have a more competitive league and if you have that then the players are going to be better and hopefully they can move on to NCAA, or semi-pro, or pro.”

The league will actually have one fewer team for 2011-12, as the NOJHL has revoked the franchise of the Temiscaming Royals.

Training camp is still over two months away, but Gagne has already begun preparing.

“Aug. 2 we will be on the ice at the McIntyre and we have started recruiting and calling players and sending some invitations here and there,” he said.

“There’s a lot of interest. The kids want to come and tryout.”

Under ideal circumstances, Gagne hopes to have between 30 and 40 players on the ice when training camp opens.

“It’s going to be a four-day training camp, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and by Friday we will let them know,” he said.

“We have a pretty good idea who is going to make the team, so far, from the players who are returning, but there are quite a few openings.

One of the biggest holes to fill on the team will be the skates of captain Josh Clancy.

“He’s a 70- to 80-point go-getter who had been with us over the last four years,” Gagne said.

“We are going to need to add defencemen, we are going to need to add another goalie. Young Fecteau is coming back, but we are going to need a good back up, or good competition to be No. 1.

“We are going to need good first and second line centremen. That’s what we are looking at.”

Summer has yet to officially arrive and the NOJHL has not released its 2011-12 schedule, but neither fact has slowed interest in the Eskimos.

As of Tuesday, the team has already sold 104 season tickets.

“That really is encouraging,” Gagne said.

“During the Sportsman Show we had a couple of weeks ago there was a lot of interest and we have had some loyal fans over the years.”