IROQUOIS FALLS - Eskimos fans will get their first look at the NOJHL’s newest franchise when the Espanola Rivermen skate onto the ice at the Jus Jordan Arena Saturday night for Abitibi’s 2013-14 home opener.
And after an off season, the Eskimos will be looking to re-establish the Jus Jordan Arena as a difficult place for visiting teams to play.
“I think the key is going to be good team defence,” said Eskimos forward Ryan Wildman, one of the team’s assistant captains.
“If we can take care of our own end, I think everything else will take care of itself.
“I think last year we were too sloppy in our own end and that cost us a lot of goals. I think if we clean up our act in our zone we will be all right.”
One big advantage the Eskimos have in trying to re-establish the Jus Jordan Arena as a tough place for visitors to play is a loyal and loud fan base.
“I think it’s great,” Wildman said. “Everyone in the Iroquois Falls area comes out to support us and it’s really nice to see.”
Eskimos assistant coach and general manager Dan Dube feels Saturday’s game will be a good test for the squad.
“We have a good mix of older guys and younger guys, so it will be a challenge for everyone,” he said.
“The older guys are going to help the younger ones and the younger ones will learn from the older guys, so it will be a good experience for them.”
Dube, like most people not associated with the Riverman, is not too sure what to expect from the visitors.
“It’s hard to know what they have got over there, but we are really excited to get things going for the home opener,” he said.
When it comes down to it, however, it really won’t matter what kind of team the Rivermen have if the Eskimos are on their game, playing Eskimos hockey.
“We have been doing our program since training camp started,” Dube said.
“We are pretty excited to put it to the test. We didn’t have our full team during the exhibition games, but now we are excited to get it going, with everybody on the same page.”
The Eskimos had everybody — except defenceman Ryan Kerr, who was serving the second game of a two-game suspension — together Wednesday in Sudbury and the results were impressive.
Playing Eskimos hockey and mastering coach and general manager Paul Gagne’s system should come easier this season, given that the squad has at least 10 players back from last year.
“There are a couple of guys who showed up late last year, too,” Dube said.
“But now we have about 10 guys returning, so it will be different.”
Having already played an exhibition game on home ice, a 5-2 loss to Kirkland Lake on Aug. 24, the assistant coach and GM doesn’t think the jitters will be a factor Saturday night.
“I think the guys are really relaxed,” Dube said.
“They have gotten to know each other a little bit more. They have had a little bit of team bonding, so I think they are going to be ready to go.
“It’s all about team bonding this time of year, getting to know your linemates, your defensive partner, the goaltender, the coaching staff … it’s all new to them.”
Dube feels the strength of the 2013-14 Eskimos will be balance.
“We have a little bit of everything,” he said. “We have a lot of speed up front and I am really confident about our defence. During the last exhibition game in Kirkland Lake they really came around. We have a couple of older guys on the defence and it will be good to help out the younger guys.”
While the Eskimos goaltenders, Sylvain Miron and Julien Deschenes are both young, the fact that they were teammates with the Kapuskasing Flyers during the 2012-13 campaign should be an advantage.
“They played together last year, so they know each other really, really well,” Dube said.
“They are going to push each other, so it will be pretty good.”
Wildman likes what he has seen of the 2013-14 version of the Eskimos.
“I think we are looking a lot better,” he said. “The front end looks really good right now and I think we are only going to get better as we play together. I think we are going to have a pretty good team.”
Wildman has played with a variety of linemates throughout training camp, the two exhibition games and Wednesday’s season opener in Sudbury against the Nickel Barons.
“I like to play with guys who are good in the defensive zone first and then pick up speed going through the neutral zone, to establish the forecheck,” he said.