At this point in time no one is saying what the Salt Lake Golden Eagles will play like. They could be of championship potential, or they could be in store for a long, difficult season.
As second-year Coach Bob Francis explained, "We've got some good veterans returning, but we also have 11 new players. Right now we don't know how this is all going to blend together. We'll have a better indication in a couple of weeks, after they've played together for a few games."
The Eagles opened the season last weekend on the road against San Diego, one of three new teams in the International Hockey League this season. Local fans will get their first viewing of the 1990-91 Eagles on Wednesday when the new San Diego Gulls come to town.
Looking at this year's team, Francis was guarded on his assessment.
"After all," he pointed out, "the new players are unfamiliar with the system and with each other. From what I've seen (in practice), however, I think we've increased our skill level immensely. We've got some good talent."
Three players sent by the Calgary Flames are old faces to Salt Lake fans - Steve Guenette (goaltender), Brian Glynn (defenseman) and Marc Bureau (forward). A fourth, C.J. Young, was recently signed. He was second-team All-America and first-team All-ECAC last year at Harvard.
What Calgary did was replace three players it kept from last year's Eagles team. The three - Stephane Matteau, Tim Sweeney and Ken Sabourin - played key roles in Salt Lake's success last year.
Francis felt, however, that he had the personnel to replace them.
"We've got capable people coming back and players that are more than capable of filling the shoes of the ones we lost. So right now I'm optimistic," he said.
One thing that is going to help the league is the addition of the three teams. Two of the teams - San Diego and Kansas City - are especially important to the image of the league here in Salt Lake City. As Francis said, people can identify more "with teams in San Diego and Kansas City than they do with teams in Flint and Peoria."
The third team is in Albany, N.Y.
The Kansas City "Blades" will operate as an independent with some players coming from Hartford and Edmonton; the San Diego "Gulls" are also an independent with a partial player agreement with Detroit; and the Albany Choppers (so named because of a tie with Price Choppers supermarket chain) will hire all of their own players. The IHL will be divided into two divisions, with two of the new teams - Kansas City and San Diego - becoming instant rivals of Salt Lake in the West.
The Golden Eagles, Kansas City and San Diego are joined by Phoenix, Milwaukee and Peoria to form a six-team West Division. The East Division will be made up of defending Turner Cup champion Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, Muskegon, Kalamazoo and Albany.
"When you look at how far it's (the IHL) come it's pretty impressive. Five years ago it was a bus-league. Now it has expanded coast to coast," he said.
Last year the Eagles finished the season with a record of 38-37-7.
They went on to play Milwaukee Admirals in the first round of the playoffs. The Eagles beat the Admirals decisively in the sixth game by a score of 8-3. The Eagles went on to lose to Indianapolis in overtime in the fifth game of the semifinals.
This year, as Francis pointed out, Salt Lake has a good group of returning players. Among them are captain/right wing Rich Chernomaz, center Randy Bucyk and right wing Martin Simard.
Backing up Guenette in the net will be Wayne Cowley, who was back-up goalie last year. Corey Lyons, who had a brief stint with the Eagles last year, returns at right wing. Paul Kruse, who racked up 22 goals with Kamloops last year and was Player of the Year in the Quebec Major Junior League, comes to Salt Lake after earning a contract at the Calgary training camp.
Also returning will be Doug Pickell, who broke his leg on New Year's Eve last season.