Hockey hopefuls start audtioning for a place on the midget AAA Norman Northstars in Thompson today and while head coach Stu Cunningham is the man with the final say for the first time, the process is something he's certainly familiar with after spending seven years as an assistant under former head coach Doug Korman.
"You're hoping every kid has their best game and hopefully they give you their best," he says. "The cream usually does rise to the top, right? The good players will always be able to find someone to play with. The really good ones, they'll play without somebody if they have to."
Still, Cunningham says, it's not always just a question of what a player can do with the puck.
"In your first intersquad games on Friday through Saturday, you know, you've really got to look, you've got to work hard," Cunningham said. "Coaches have to look hard to see what they're seeing, to see who's watching, not just watching the puck but watching what's happening away from the puck, all those sorts of things."
Chemistry also plays a role and although nobody's guaranteed a spot on the team, with more than a dozen players from last year's squad eligible to return, it's clear that there will be some familiar faces in Northstars uniforms again this season.
"It's not just about being the best player, it's about fitting in," says Cunningham. "It's finding the pieces to fit in around these other players."
Some potential Northstars won't be able to attend the entire camp because they're currently at junior team tryouts, but most will be in Thompson in time to play in the blue-and-white intersquad game on Sunday. In most of those cases, Cunningham has a good idea what the players can do based on what he's seen as a spectator.
"I watched quite a few of the games last year, so I have a good idea how they play and what type of skills they bring to the table," says the coach. " The coaching staff last year had a good core of players and have left me a good core of players. They were a decent hockey team last year."
Cunningham says Tanner Hepp, Drake Bodie and Brendan Barron all have the talent to finish in the top 10 in league scoring, while potential returning defencemen include Bruce Highway, Cory Reid, Boyd Langan, Rick Frechette and Jordie Valentino.
Other players from last year's squad still midget-eligible include Teagan and Tavish Quinn, Tyrel Charlton, Lodie Ipeelie, Evan Akkerman, Steve Goran, Aaron Beauchamp and goaltender Aaron Vallance. Goaltender Justin Paulic is also still eligible, but Cunningham figures he won't have that option.
"We wish him the best of luck," he said.
There will be some new faces behind the scenes, with Darryl Bourget taking over as equipment manager and Mike Vallance filling the trainer's role. Assistant coahces will be Tim Velemirovich, Mark Scott and Jeff Lapointe. Cunningham said his experience working with Korman will guide him in the head coach's role.
"Doug always kept us pretty well a part of everything," Cunningham says. "Sure the head coach always has the final say in things and I guess I'll have that final say but I'll listen to what the assistant coaches have to say. You're only as strong as your supporting cast so I always believe that if you have a strong supporting cast it'll help me make the right decisions."
Not knowing who will be back or who the new faces will be, Cunningham says it's hard to predict what type of systems the team will play or what will be the coaching philosophy.
"You have to wait and see what your final product is then you'll have to decide how you're going to coach a team from there," he says, though he expects to ice a hard-working and well-conditioned squad. "I would believe that we're going to be very strongly defensive-minded."
The team hopes to have 80 to 100 players at tryouts, hopefully with enough selection to ensure competition. Unlike Winnipeg teams, says Cunningham, who may have 20 goalies to choose from, the Northstars don't necessarily get that many defencemen trying out, and only a handful of goalies.
"I'm not sure what we're going to have for goalies this year," he says.