Lace up your skates and strap on your helmet, Bellingham - a new junior hockey team is about to come to town.
The Northern Pacific Hockey League (NORPAC) has awarded Bellingham an expansion team for the 2012-13 season.
The team, which will play home games at the Sportsplex starting with its home opener on Oct. 21, will be known as the Bellingham Blazers and will be coached by Mark Collins. It will be owned and operated by the Whatcom Sports Commission, and Lance Calloway will serve as the franchise's general manager.
"This area had a strong history of junior hockey back in the '70s and '80s, when they were in the B.C. league," Collins said in a phone interview. "The proximity to Canada is good. We have all this hockey to the north, and not a lot down here, and with the recent interest in putting an NHL franchise in Seattle, I think this is a good spot and Bellingham is a good community to have hockey in. We want to make sure we have hockey all along the I-5 corridor. There are some very good young players in this area, and we want to make sure they have a place to play and develop."
The NORPAC is considered a Tier III hockey league and is intended for amateur players ages 16-20 who have not yet played college hockey.
Collins said Tier I teams are teams such as the Everett Silvertips and Seattle Thunderbirds, while area Tier II teams include the Wenatchee Wild and Langley Rivermen. Tier III leagues around the country, according to Collins, include the America West Hockey League, Western States Hockey League and the Minnesota Junior Hockey League.
The NORPAC is in its 12th season and includes five other teams in Bremerton, Vancouver (Wash.), Kennewick, Eugene (Ore.) and Whitefish (Mont.). The league champion advances to the national junior hockey championship tournament in April.
"The biggest draw for Tier III leagues is that there are a lot of kids that are not quite at that level to make Tier I or Tier II yet," Collins said. "This gives them a tremendous opportunity to play and continue to develop. We feel this is a good opportunity for kids that might be a little bit younger or may not have the size yet. We want to take them and develop them and help them improve so that hopefully they can get to that level where they can make a Tier I or Tier II team the next year."
Collins should have a good foundation to teach from, as he played junior hockey in Saskatchewan and earned a scholarship to play at North Dakota State. He spent the past two years as an assistant coach with the Wenatchee Wild U18 team. Before that, he coached the Whatcom Warriors, and he is currently the hockey director at the Sportsplex, coaching the Learn to Play Hockey program for youth and adults.
Collins said he expects his 23- to 25-player roster to include between five and 10 players from Whatcom County.
To help find those players, tryouts will be held at 10:45 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 18, and at 9:30 a.m. on Sunday, Aug. 19, at the Sportsplex.
"There are definitely a few kids here that are good enough to make this team," Collins said. "These are players I would love to help develop and possibly help them get into a college program."
Players from outside the area will be able to stay with host families, which the team is trying to recruit.
The Blazers will play a 40-game schedule beginning Oct. 4 at Bremerton against the West Sound Warriors. Bellingham's first home game will by Oct. 21 against West Sound. Eleven of the Blazers' first 13 games will be on the road, but 13 of their final 15 will be at the Sportsplex, including their March 1 regular-season finale against the Vancouver Victory.
Home games will typically be on Friday and Saturday nights, with tickets costing $6 for adults, $4 for youth 5-18, students and seniors 65 and older.
"Bellingham already has a strong youth hockey program," Calloway said in a press release. "We also have a rich history of junior hockey with a number of players advancing to careers in the National Hockey League, including Glenn Anderson, Stan Smyl, Brad Maxwell, Ken Berry, Tom McMurchy and Wayne Van Dorp. The Blazers will enable us to introduce the great sport of hockey to more people in a fun, family environment."
Reach David Rasbach at email@example.com or 360-715-2286.
MEET THE NEW TEAM
Name: Bellingham Blazers
League: Northern Pacific Hockey League (Tier III)
Owner: Whatcom Sports Commission
General manager: Lance Calloway
Coach: Mark Collins
Team colors: Red, white and black
Home ice: Bellingham Sportsplex
First regular season game: Oct. 4 at West Sound (Bremerton)
First home game: 6:30 p.m. Oct. 21 vs. West Sound
Regular season finale: March 1 vs. Vancouver Victory
Tickets: $6 adults; $4 youth (5-18), students and seniors (over 65)
Tryouts: 10:45 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 18; 9:30 a.m. Sunday, Aug. 19
Reach DAVID RASBACH at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 715-2271.