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Eskis gear up for season opener

The regular Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League season starts on Wednesday for the home-town side.

The Abitibi Eskimos are set to start the season with a record of no wins – and two losses.

Granted, those two losses were against the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners in a two-game home-and-home series – the only two games the Eskis will play in the pre-season in this, what is expected to be a season in which the black and gold should take giant steps forward to the glory they have enjoyed in previous years.

The two pre-season games last Saturday and Sunday weren’t necessarily eye-openers – it’s unlikely anybody would have been any more surprised with a split or a pair of wins than they were with the pair of losses – these are games of experiments, games of jiggling and juggling lines, games of testing players’ conditioning and commitment, games of discovering who fits where in game conditions rather than practice workouts.

There were a few complaints from Head Coach Paul Gagné after Saturday’s 5-2 loss to the Gold Miners – and fewer after the 3-2 double-overtime loss in Kirkland Lake on Sunday – but the complaints were rightly kept to the dressing room, where they belong at this stage of the pre-season).

The pair of pre-season games are the only game action the Eskis can be expected to see before the team travels to Copper Cliff’s McLelland Arena next Wednesday night to take on the Sudbury Nickel Barons. The home regular-season schedule begins next Saturday (Sept 7) when the transplanted North Bay Trappers from last year, under head coach Tom McCarthy, visit The Igloo wearing the colours of the Espanola Rivermen. (This year’s edition of the North Bay Trappers is actually an expansion franchise in the eight-team league.)

Last Saturday night at The Igloo in the first pre-season game, it took just two minutes and one second for Sylvain Miron to experience the empty feeling that playing against skilled Junior A opponents might just be a little more challenging than playing against midget-aged players, like he did last season as a member of the Kap Agrium Flyers of the Great North Midget Hockey League.

That’s precisely how long it took for Kirkland Lake Gold Miner Casey Drolet to score the first goal of the exhibition season at the Jus Jordan Arena. By 7:28 it was 2-0, and by 11:38 the Kirkland Lakers looked like they were going to turn it into a rout.

But from the Eskis standpoint, it wasn’t turning into a rout – the team was replete with newcomers, including seven more of Miron’s former Kap teammates last year. One of them, Moosonee native Cam Etherington, made it 3-1 at the 16:51 mark then veteran Zach Innes closed the gap to 3-2 before the period ended and the Eskis seemed to have righted the kayak, if they had not quite pointed it in the right direction.

The second period started in promising fashion for the young Eskis – but things began to fall apart after Ryan Kerr took a five-minute major and a game misconduct for drilling Jacob Zarzyki into the boards in front of the Eskis bench. The Michigan native lay motionless for nearly five minutes before being helped to his feet and taken off the ice.

The Gold Miners scored two more goals in the second, and appeared to have developed a bit more confidence after experiencing some jitters in the first two periods.

One high note appeared to be the goaltending of Miron, who seems to have the left hand of a New Mexico gunslinger from the 1870s – he faced nearly 50 shots over the three periods – but could hardly have been blamed for all the scoring as his defense and back-checking forwards seemed a bit disorganized at times – and the Eskis were missing some heavyweight scorers – centre Ryan Wildman, scoring machine Aaron Kerr and defenseman Jeremy Lauzon weren’t in the Eskis black and gold, and Jacob Kenney was nursing a finger injury. On Sunday, two other Eski netminders, Shawn Gerbinski and Julian Deschenes, split the net-minding duties in the 3-2 double-overtime loss.

Attendance at the pre-season game was announced as a respectable 473 – but the Eskis program reported that only 142 season ticket packages had been sold for the 2013-2014 season.

The first 50-50 draw of the season netter the winner an even $400.

CUTLINE

Sylvain Miron played a strong game in goal for the Abitibi Eskimos Saturday night despite being beaten for five goals. The 5-2 loss to the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners was his first official NOJHL action after graduating from the Kapuskasing Agrium Flyers AAA Midgets. Austin Rust (19) scored twice for the Gold Miners.