The 2012 provincial major midget hockey season kicks off this weekend in Corner Brook with a pre-season tournament that will provide an early glimpse at each of the five teams slated to play this season.
Rosters and coaching staffs have changed, but what appears to be a given again this season is the emergence of the St. John’s Privateers as a league contender, perhaps even the team to beat. The Privateers won the league title last season, losing only two regular season games and sweeping both rounds of the playoffs.
The organization (prior to the Privateers, they were known as the Fog Devils, and Maple Leafs before that) has won the past 10 straight provincial titles.
“Last year,” said Privateers coach Doug Jackman, “the goal of the league was to have parity amongst the teams, but we still won pretty handily.
“I think this might be the first year there is parity in the league.”
To even things up, St. John’s was split into two teams starting with the 2010-11 season, the Privateers and St. John’s Maple Leafs.
The Leafs failed to make the playoffs that first season, but reached the league final last year before bowing out to the Privateers.
Both St. John’s clubs produced major junior hockey players this season from last year’s rosters, namely Clark Bishop (Cape Breton Screaming Eagles) and Marcus Cuomo (Saint John Sea Dogs) from the Privateers, and Cody Donaghey (Rouyn-Noranda Huskies) and Nathan Yetman (P.E.I. Rocket) from the Leafs.
“We lost nine players from last year’s roster,” Jackman said, “but we did pretty good in the draft (of local midget players). Every year in major midget hockey, you’re anxious to see how you stack up.
“But you look to win every year you’re in this league. It’s what drives you.”
Jackman said there are some jobs available on his forward lines, and he’s still not certain who his two goaltenders will be from the trio of Mitchell Puddester, Chris Smith and Philip Hann.
“We’re putting a lot of weight on this Corner Brook tournament (in selecting a final roster),” Jackman said.
Other teams returning to the league this season are the Tri-Pen Lions, Central IcePak and Western Kings, who are playing host to the weekend tournament which opens Friday at the Pepsi Centre.
The Kings figure to be strong as every one of their players from last season are eligible to return.
The Leafs are back with a new coaching staff of Ed Oates and Don Roche and a young club that included 13 first-year players in camp.
“We lost a lot of talent (Yetman, Donaghey and Kyle Tibbo, who tried out for Rouyn-Noranda and is now playing prep school hockey) and we’ve got one third-year player back (Chris Mallard) outside outside our goalies so we’ll have a young team,” said Oates. “But we’ll have a good little team.
“It will be a hard-working team.”
It might be a bit surprising the Lions have returned to the major midget fold. Tri-Pen finished last in the five-team circuit last season, and failed to ice a squad for the league’s final showcase tournament in Clarenville.
Tri-Pen encompasses a large geographical area, stretching from the outskirts of St. John’s, to Conception Bay, the Placentia area, Burin Peninsula, Clarenville and Bonavista.
“We held identification camps in May,” said general manager John Budden, “and we staged an aggressive email campaign. What we had been hearing is that players didn’t know when tryouts were so we wanted to ensure that wasn’t the case this time.”
The Lions, who will play home games at a number of different rinks this season under new coach Rod Noseworthy, including the Clarenville Events Centre, Placentia’s Unity Parc Arena, the Whitbourne Arena and the Bay Arena in Bay Roberts, have been on the ice in Clarenville where the Lions have secured 21 hours of icetime for practice.
The team, said Budden, has a healthy regional representation with six players from Bonavista, three from Clarenville, two from Marystown, four from the Placentia area, one from Whitbourne, four from Harbour Grace area and “six or seven” from the Bay Roberts area.
“The last two seasons, we had one player from Bonavista (Connor Stevens) so you can imagine his resolve,” Budden said. “We’ve got a commitment from all the players this year.”
At The Pepsi Centre, Corner Brook
9 a.m. Privateers vs Leafs
11:30 a.m., IcePak vs Kings
4 p.m., Lions vs Privateers
6:30 p.m., Leafs vs IcePak
9 a.m., Lions vs IcePak
11:30 a.m., Kings vs Leafs
2:00 p.m., IcePak vs Privateers
4:30 p.m., Kings vs Lions
9:00 a.m., Privateers vs Kings
11:30 a.m., Leafs vs Lions