It isn’t a particularly bad time for American hockey fans to stop and smell the roses a bit. Consider the unexpected silver medal performance by the Americans at the Vancouver Winter Olympic Games, which for most portend another serious medal challenge in four years’ time. And few moments for hockey-loving Yanks were as stirring as the sudden-death, gold-medal triumph in Saskatoon back in January at the World Juniors. Buffalo will host the 2011 World Juniors, and the Americans will defend their gold as tournament favorites.
Meanwhile, at the developmental level, the news is big and bold and boundless: great young hockey players are coming from all across the country, including two Californians tabbed in the first round the the NHL Entry Draft this past June. A couple of years ago I was seated next to an NHL scout up in Hershey at a Bears’ game, and this scout — a Canadian — told me that if the U.S. ever expanded its talent base to population-rich, athlete-generating factory locales like California and Texas, all bets at the biggest international tourneys would be off. Late this summer I’m wondering: are we at that dawning?
More: two new clubs are debuting this fall in the United States Hockey League, the Dubuque Fighting Saints and the Muskegon Lumberjacks. That brings the 9-year-old Tier I league up to 16 teams, scattered throughout the heartland, each playing 60 games through fall and winter. Last season, the 14-team league boasted nearly 250 players already committed to NCAA Division I schools, with 35 NHL draft picks on league rosters. It’s where the United States National Development Team Program showcases our country’s best under-20 players. The USHL is the nation’s foremost producer of junior hockey talent, and it’s growing in size and prestige.
Christopher Heimerman is the brand new communications director and broadcaster for the Lumberjacks, and earlier this summer he reached out to us with some kind words for the blog and an interest in sharing the startup team’s terrific story. Muskegon, long a home to minor-minor pro hockey, is set to host a big upgrade in the quality of on-ice product. Take a look at what the Muskegon Chronicle reported about a tryout camp the team hosted back in June:
“Mike Hastings has been so impressed by what he’s seen the first two days of the Muskegon Lumberjacks’ tryout camp, he just might alter his travel plans to stay one more day. Hastings, an associated head coach at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, would like to stick around for the all-star game at 8 p.m. today. After three days of scrimmaging, the 104 players will be pared down to about 40.
“Out of all the camps I’ve seen so far, this has been the most impressive as far as talent,” Hastings said.
Muskegon, located at about the knuckle of your pinky in the left hand’s acknowledgment of the state’s layout, has a rich hockey heritage. Pro hockey has been played there for 50 years, since 1960, until the IHL’s Muskegon Lumberjacks disbanded earlier this year, in the IHL’s merger with the Central Hockey League. To honor minor pro hockey’s 50-year history in Muskegon, Josh Mervis, the owner of the new USHL club in town, decided his franchise would retain the Lumberjacks’ team name, which honors the huge number of sawmills that characterized the city back when it was known as the ‘Lumber Queen of the World.’ The Lumberjacks represent the first Michigan franchise in the USHL. They’ll be coached by Kevin Patrick, a former defenseman and captain of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
The team will play in L.C. Walker Arena, an old-school bowl of a building perfect for puck, built in the 1950s, placing patrons right on top of the action. The rink holds 5,000-plus for this community of 40,000 and has been home to all of Muskegon’s hockey teams over the years — the Zephyrs, the Mohawks, the Lumberjacks, the Fury, and then the Lumberjacks again. The Lumberjacks name has emerged as the durable tribute to the town. Ownership and management of the USHL club are taking pains to make the transition of teams as seamless as possible. Heimerman told me that the USHL team’s uniforms will bear a striking resemblance to its predecessor.
“This community has had teams come and go, and the hockey fans here are understandably resistant to change,” Heimerman told me. “Beginning next month the quality of product they’ll see on the ice will be fantastic. We very much want a familiar look and feel in the building and in the colors and crest our players wear.”
Heimerman also stressed the involvement his players will have in the Muskegon community. The players began arriving in town for fall camp this past weekend. All of the players will be attending Muskegon Community College or Grand Valley State University, and they’ll be conspicuous in their presence in the community. “They are going to be role models here,” Heimerman told me. “They’ll be treated like stars, but they’ll oblige every request for autographs.”
And they’ll have a special coming out party. The team’s first-ever game, in the preseason, will take place September 12 in Detroit, at Joe Louis Arena, when the Lumberjacks square off against the Chicago Steel.
American kids, playing great hockey in a hockey town, making up a big chunk of the town’s fall and winter entertainment. A few of them will make careers of hockey. All will get a college education out of the arrangement. What’s not to like?