The Golden Eagles are excited about how much they've improved; they're not alone. Many International League teams have experienced the same kind of talent boost, and as the Eagles have already seen, Milwaukee's new affiliation with the Vancouver Canucks has paid off in a strong team.
With the Canucks coming into the league, seven of the 10 teams are now No. 1 farm teams to the NHL. Three, including the new Indianapolis Ice, are still independents."The league is going to be unbelievable this year," says Peoria Coach Wayne Thomas, who guided the Eagles to their first Turner Cup two years ago before they became the Calgary Flames' top farm club.
Thomas is impressed with Milwaukee, and he says his Rivermen will be much improved over last year. The college players St. Louis drafted a few years ago when it couldn't afford to draft (and pay) big-name stars are now ready for the pros. Thomas' group is made up of a lot of good college players, he says, along with veterans, several down from the NHL. In fact, Peoria's good enough that it lent high-scoring veteran Ron Handy to Indianapolis.
Here's a quick look at the rest of the "I":
Denver Rangers - Coach Pete Mahovlich, affiliation New York Rangers. Salt Lake's biggest rival last season has most of the same players back - 16 - including top scorers Simon Wheeldon and Todd Elik. Goaltending should be good with Ron Scott and Olympian Mike Richter.
Indianapolis Ice - Coach Archie Henderson, independent. Rookie Henderson has three of last year's Eagles - Rick Barkovich, Brent Sapergia and Darwin McCutcheon. Handy scored 116 points in 79 games for Peoria last year. There's only one rookie - right wing Jamie McKinley out of Guelph, Ontario. The rest are IHL or AHL vets like Glenn Johannesen, Bob Lakso, Chris McSorley.
Milwaukee Admirals - Coach Rick Ley, affiliation Vancouver Canucks They're 2-0 and have only six raw rookies to go with a strong line of NHL, IHL and AHL vets including ex-Eagles Peter Bakovic, Paul Lawless and Gary Stewart. Marc Crawford, brother of ex-Eagle Bobby, is player/assistant coach.
Peoria Rivermen - Coach Wayne Thomas, affiliation St. Louis Blues Thomas can choose from veterans like Rob Whistle, Cliff Ronning, Dave Thomlinson, Dominic LaVoie, Tim Bothwell, Scott Harlow, Ron Flockhart, Shane MacEachern, Wayne Gagne and goalie Darrell May to help his collegians.
Flint Spirits - Coach Don Waddell, independent Rookie Waddell will have only five men return from last season's Turner Cup runners-up - goalies Gary Kruzich and Ray LeBlanc, defenseman Tom Karalis and forwards Mike Hoffman and Dwaine Hutton. Michel Mongeau, 1986-87's top IHL rookie, is back from playing in France.
Fort Wayne Komets - Coach Rob Laird, independent Eight players return from last year, and Laird has a high-scoring rookie in Len Soccio, who was No. 2 in the Ontario junior league. They've picked up several from other IHL and AHL teams, including Colorado's Byron Lomow.
Kalamazoo Wings - Coach John Marks, affiliation Minnesota North Stars Rookie Darcy Norton had 64 goals and 43 assists (107) at Kamloops in the Western junior league last year, and there's a good young goalie in former U.S. Olympian John Blue.
Muskegon Lumberjacks - Coach Blair McDonald, affiliation Pittsburgh Penguins Jock Callander's back, along with Lee Giffin, Dave Michayluk and goalies Jeff Cooper and Frank Pietrangelo; the new coach has a team very similar to the one that last year set IHL records for wins (58), points (126), goals (415) and assists (697).
Saginaw Hawks - Coach Darryl Sutter, affiliation Chicago Blackhawks Ex-Eagle Mike Rucinski is back, along with goalies Ed Belfour and Chris Clifford and defenseman Bruce Cassidy. Several Hawks played with Chicago last season, and Brian Noonan spent the year in the NHL. Finland's Jari Torkki looks like a prospect.