By Mark McKelvie @Mark14McKelvie
Sometimes good things come to those who wait.
That is what the people of North Bay are hoping for as OHL hockey returns to the city for the first time since 2002.
But North Bay isn’t getting just any OHL team moving into their city, they are getting a strong Battalion organization who haven’t missed the playoffs in the last 10 seasons.
“Just walking the streets you bump into people and the questions are coming like when’s training camp, who’s coming back,” said team President Mike Griffin. “People are aware of the team, they have a keen interest in the team and they are very knowledgeable about the game, so people are very excited up here.”
After waiting 11 years, the people of North Bay are anxious for this season's puck-drop but will have to wait a little longer for the home opener as the Battalion will start on the road for their first nine games due to arena renovations.
Those renovations have also made operating a training camp difficult for Head Coach and General Manager Stan Butler, who recently inked a five-year contract extension with the club.
“We have a lot of challenges to overcome, we don’t have a weight room to train in, offices to work out of, so it is a trying time,” Butler said. “When everything settles in we will be a good team.”
Butler has reason to foresee a good season, especially if all key returning players find their way back in the lineup including top scorer and captain Barclay Goodrow. The overage candidate was invited to play for the Detroit Red Wings in the Traverse City prospects tournament and would surely boost the Troops' offense.
However, one player who isn’t back as an overager is import goaltender Matej Machovsky who posted 25 wins and a goals against average of 2.52 last season.
Machovsky has returned to his native Czech Republic to play professionally leaving his spot up in the air.
“We got Jake Smith (was the backup last season) and we feel he can be a number one goaltender,” said Butler. “We also acquired Brendan O’Neil from Sudbury and he has played some games in this league and he offers us support in goal.”
The goaltending might not be set in stone but the defence is as practiced as they come with league vets Marcus McIvor, Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Dylan Blujus, and Brendan Miller all entering their fourth season in the league, joined by overage defenceman Zach Bell who would play his fifth and final OHL season.
While Butler won’t have to worry about the back end, he is looking to certain forwards to continue to improve and impress this season including two former first round picks.
“Guys like Blake Clarke (2012 first round pick) and Brandon Robinson (2011 first round pick) they will step it up and have a breakthrough year.”
His most recent first round selection Brett McKenzie moves to North Bay after being a part of the powerhouse Minor Midget Oakville Rangers lineup that won last year’s OHL Cup.
“Brett is going to be a good player,” said Butler. “He was on a good team last year but this year is going to be about him adjusting to this level.”
The on-ice product is setting up to be successful but just as important is the off-ice viability of a franchise in North Bay. The organization has big goals set to reach by the home opener.
“Our goal is to get close to 3000 season tickets by when we open on October 11th,” said Griffin. “We certainly think we have a good shot to get that by then.”
Griffin says sponsors have been jumping on board continuously which is creating even more anticipation for the team and the new-look Memorial Gardens.
“I have people tell me that they are going out of their way on the way to work to go by the Garden to see what has changed on a day-to-day basis,” Griffin said. “I am getting excited about the changes to the building as it relates to what the people of North Bay have been used to and I believe the people around the OHL will be pleased and impressed by what North Bay has to offer by these changes.”
The people of North Bay will be flocking to the Garden when it opens the doors to the public and the Peterborough Petes on October 11 to see both the new renovations, and if all goes well this season, a winning hockey team.
“Our expectation is to be a contender in the Eastern Conference and we can’t guarantee anything but we would like to think by playoff time we can be the team to move out of the conference,” said Griffin. “Off the ice we expect to be an integral part of the community and we expect our players are going to fall in love with the community and that certainly not only helps us this year but down the road as North Bay becomes a city players want to play in.”
As for Butler, he knows this season will be different than any other.
“It’s a transition time personally for me and also for our players, but we are here to get better on a daily basis.”
As for how the conference plays out, Butler wouldn’t rank his team at the top of the conference but expects to be right in the mix.
“I think in our division Sudbury is the team to beat and in the conference Kingston will also be good, but then we have a chance to be right in that next group.”
That next group means post-season hockey for the Battalion and OHL fans in North Bay, excitedly hoping it's been worth the wait.
Click here to watch the Battalion's 2013 OHL Priority Selection picks.
ontariohockeyleague.com will feature one team each day in advance of the 2013-14 season which begins Thursday September 19.
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