When the Salt Lake Golden Eagles begin their seventh season in the International Hockey League Friday night in San Diego, the league will have a new feel to it.
For the first time, the majority of the teams are based in major metropolitan cities, rather than industrial towns in the Midwest that few folks around here have heard of.San Diego, Kansas City and Albany have joined the league this year, joining Phoenix, Milwaukee, Indianapolis and Salt Lake as major cities in the IHL. Others in the league include Peoria, Fort Wayne, Kalamazoo and Muskegon. Gone from last year is Flint.
"This is great for the rivalries - fans can associate better with San Diego, Phoenix and Kansas City," said Eagle second-year coach Bobby Francis. "Five years ago this was a bus league in the Midwest. It's incredible the strides the league has made."
The Golden Eagles are coming off a second-place finish in the West Division, not bad except that their 37-36-9 record was topped by every team in the stronger East Division.
Fourteen players return from last year along with 10 newcomers. Since only 18 players can suit, a few of the players may not be around for too long.
Three of last year's mainstays have graduated to Calgary. Tim Sweeney, the team's leading scorer, left winger Stephane Matteau and defensemen Ken Sabourin all made the Calgary team, which opened its season today.
"It's hard to evaluate where we are now and it will take a couple of weeks until we know," said Francis, who finalized his roster just a couple of days ago.
Last year the parent Calgary club was playing in Russia in September, so the Eagles had the whole month to work together.
"We'll definitely have a different look than fans are used to," said Francis. "I'm conservatively optimistic."
FORWARDS - There's plenty of experience up front with Marc Bureau, Rich Chernomaz, Randy Bucyk and Martin Simard, the Eagles' 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 8th leading scorers a year ago. They'll be joined by newcomers C.J. Young, Andrew McKim, Todd Harkins, Corey Lyons and Paul Kruse.
"We'll have a blend of youth with a lot of strong experience up front," said Francis.
DEFENSE - This could be a weakness at least early in the season. Sabourin was lost to Calgary and Stu Grimson was picked by the Chicago Blackhawks earlier this week. Also Jim Leavins, Chris Biotti and Rick Hayward aren't returning this year.
The Eagles have experience with Kevin Grant, Rick Lessard, Darryl Olsen, Bryan Deasley and Doug Pickell. Also, they picked up Kerry Clark, an enforcer-type who had 238 penalty minutes in just 38 games with Phoenix last year. Newcomers include Kevan Melrose, Scott McCrady and Mark Osiecki.
GOALTENDERS - Nothing's changed here. Steve Guenette, Wayne Cowley and Warren Sharples are all back.
Guenette (22-21-4) nearly stuck with Calgary and was expected to be picked up in the waiver draft earlier this week. But the Eagles are happy to have him back. "He's a proven goaltender, a quality goaltender," said Francis.
Francis is also high on Cowley (15-12-5), who begins his third season. "I can't say enough about Wayne. He came on strong in the second half of last year," said Francis. Sharples is still unproven, having played in just three games last year, but Francis likes what he's seen.
"We're fortunate in having three capable goaltenders."
After Friday's opener, the Eagles play again in San Diego Saturday before opening the season against the same Gull team Wednesday in the Salt Palace.