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Eskis still making news in lazy, hazy days of summer

The uniforms will stay the same – the striking black and gold of the Abitibi Eskimos will again bring a familiar look to the Jus Jordan Arena during the upcoming Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League season – but for the fans of the home-town Eskis, there are going to be some new uniforms competing against the Eskis.

There are also going to be some new bodies filling those familiar Eskis uniforms.

The NOJHL held its annual meeting on June 20 and released the schedule for the 2014-2015 season – a schedule that, because of some realignment, might give the Eskis a break in the area of team travel costs.

Let’s start by laying out the scheduling issues for the new-look Eskis – and the new-look NOJHL – in 2014-2015.

It’s old news now – but the league has been realigned into eastern and western divisions – with the Sault Ste. Marie Thunderbirds, Sudbury Nickel Barons, Blind River Beavers and the new team in Elliot Lake, now called the Wildcats but now community-owned as last year’s Bobcats have crunched some numbers and determined they’d be a better fit in Cochrane – as the Crunch.

With Cochrane now in the eastern division, along with a new team in Powassan, called the Voodoos (named for a CF-101 jet fighter that’s mounted on a concrete pedestal in a nearby North Bay park) and a team in Mattawa called the Blackhawks – which is really the relocated North Bay Trappers from last year’s NOJHL, who were unceremoniously booted from their home arena, where they were receiving scant fan support.

Eskis travel costs are expected to be reduced by the realignment of the league – the Eskis will play a 10-game home-and-home series with the new Cochrane entry and another 10-game home and home series with the NOJHL 2013-2014 champions, the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners. That’s 20 games with a pair of teams within a long Scott Marshall drive off the tee at the Abitibi Golf Club – good news for the Eskis, whose travel; costs to the far reaches of Highway 17 west will be minimized because of the league’s realignment. One of the advantages of having teams in Kirkland Lake and Cochrane – plus a solid fan base in Timmins – is that there is likely to be a lot of intercommunity travel as fans from Kirkland Lake, Cochrane and Timmins come to The Igloo to support their teams, while Eskis fans can make more economical trips to Cochrane and Kirkland Lake to see their young heroes in action.

As they have in past seasons, the Eskis will play five Friday night “home” games in Timmins – although there will be fewer games at the venerable McIntyre Arena – which may have historic value, but is possibly the worst place to watch a hockey game in northeastern Ontario. The Mac’s ice surface is smaller (there’s much less room in the neutral zone), the parking facilities are inadequate, and the sightlines are almost incomprehensibly inadequate for hockey. Only the first game will be played at the Mac – and the other four will be played at the Archie Dillon Sportsplex – a smaller venue, but an arena where the fans can at least see the entire ice surface without obstruction, and where fans have a parking lot that doesn’t require a long walk in sub-zero temperatures to get to the box office.

Eskis fans will have to get used to a revamped line-up in 2014-2015 – gone are such familiar faces as top rookie Marc Dubé, who will be attending college in Sudbury, as well as goaltenders Sylvain Miron and Brody Wagner. Jacob Kenney and Steve Pettite are also gone, as are overage stars Erik Robichaud and Bryce Robert. Assistant coach Dan Dubé says team management is closely monitoring the summer workout programs for returning Eskis this fall.

The first home game of the new season will be against the Powassan Voodoos – the newest expansion team in the nine-team NOJHL. (The Voodoos have signed a farm-club agreement with the Ontario Hockey League’s North Bay Battalion.) The season’s opening game at The Igloo will take place on Saturday, September 6.

Before the regular season begins, the Eskis will play four exhibition games against the league-champion Gold Miners two games at home on August 23 and 27, and two games on the Mile of Gold on August 22 and 28. Eskis tryouts in Timmins will be held at the Whitney Arena between August 5 and 8. The main training camp venue will be at the Jus Jordan Arena in Iroquois Falls.

The Eskis continue to be the only Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League team to fully fund all hockey related expenses for the players.

The other teams in the league operate on a pay-to-play basis, where families of the players have to ante up anywhere from $2,000 to $4,000 plus room and board costs for the players to be able to participate. A recent news item n the Wawatay News – a prime Aboriginal newspaper in the country – indicated that a player from a northwestern Ontario First Nations community recently signed by the Shelburne Red Wings, a Tier 2 team in the Greater Metro Hockey League (GMHL), will have to pay $8,500 plus $500 in monthly room and board in order to play with his new club.

The Abitibi Eskimos, meanwhile, fund the entire operation through fan support, sponsorships and season ticket sales.