Summer is just a couple of days old, but it’s never too early to start thinking about hockey. Abitibi Eskimos fans will see a number of changes when the Iroquois Falls-based squad skate onto the ice at the Jus Jordan Arena for the start of the 2012-13 Northern Ontario Junior ‘A’ Hockey League campaign this fall. As a result of those changes, finishing first will be more important than ever. The league has opted to go with one seven-team division for the 2012-13 campaign instead of the two-division (one four-team and one three-team) system it employed last season. The team that ends the regular season in first place will receive a bye during the first round of the playoffs, with the second-place finisher meeting the seventh-place finisher, the third-place finisher facing the sixth-place finisher and the fourth-place finisher facing off against the fifth-place finisher. “Finishing first, you will get a rest period, if you have injuries and recuperation, and have good practices,” said Eskimos coach and general manager Paul Gagne. “To get a bye like that is nice to have. It will make it more exciting in the league this year. You are going to want to finish in first place, for sure.” While the NOJHL will still ice seven teams for the 2012-13 campaign, the lineup of teams will change slightly. The Soo Eagles are taking a leave of absence and will be skating in the North American Hockey League this winter. They will be replaced by the Elliot Lake Bobcats, who are making the move from the Greater Metro Hockey League. In addition, the Sudbury Cubs (formerly the Jr. Wolves) will now be known as the Nickel Barons. “It’s unfortunate the Soo went a different route, but that’s the way it is,” Gagne said. “You gain some, you lose some, but it’s nice to have Elliot Lake in the league. I am sure they are going to compete. They have got some people who are really involved in hockey.” Travelling to Elliot Lake instead of Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., will be a little shorter for the Eskimos, but they will still make three-game trips (Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., Blind River and Elliot Lake). Teams will play a 48-game schedule in 2012-13, down from 50 in 2011-12. Unlike last season, it will be a balanced schedule, with each team facing the other six teams eight times (four at home, four on the road). Hockey purists will also be pleased to learn that the NOJHA is putting the shootout on ice. Instead, if a game ends in a tie the two teams will play four-on-four for five minutes and then, if necessary, play three-on-three for another five minutes. Should no winner be decided by the end of these two extra periods it will remain a tie. “I have mixed feelings about it, but that’s democracy,” Gagne said. “I thought the fans always liked to see the shootouts … you see the talent … but it will also be exciting to have 10 minutes of hockey, if it goes duration for the four-on-four and three-on-three. “It evens out, because the fans are probably going to see the best players four-on-four and three-on-three. “There will be a little bit of tactics with the three-on-three. Sometimes you can pull the goalie and make it a four-on-three in the offensive zone. “It will be exciting. I think the fans will be happy with it.” Fans, of course, will also notice a lot of changes to the roster of the Eskimos when the team takes to the ice this season. In addition to the players who are too old to return, such as leader scorer Marc-Alain Begin, Abitibi will also be without both Kord brothers (winger Jacob and defenseman Justin) and centre Jordan Delaurier who will be attending Wilfred Laurier University in Kitchener. In addition, forward Troy Columbus will be suiting up with the Great North Midget League’s Timmins Majors this season to focus on his schooling. “There will be some changes again this year, which is interesting, but that’s the nature of the game,” Gagne said. Eskimos head scout Richard McDonald and Gagne have been busy putting together a list of players to invite to training camp. Training camp is scheduled to open at the Archie Dillon Sportsplex in Timmins on Aug 8 and run until Aug. 11. That will be followed by the team’s main camp in Iroquois Falls later in the month.