BY JAMES COOK
TRAVERSE CITY — The 2009-10 season was a landmark one for the Traverse City North Stars.
The franchise, which had been on the brink of making a lot of noise in the North American Hockey League, finally busted out the party favors and let loose.
After several years of getting oh-so-close to making the playoffs or nearly winning a postseason series, the team finally did it. And they did it in a big way.
The Stars not only won their first playoff series in the franchise's five-year history, they swept their first two series and advanced to the league's championship tournament. In the Robertson Cup finals, TC was a respectable 2-2, but didn't come home with the league's title.
The Stars' 71 regular-season points were behind only five teams and tied them with Marquette atop the North Division, although the Rangers were the division champions by virtue of an advantage in the season series.
After finishing the regular season by winning six of its last eight games to finish as the second seed, Traverse City swept its first-round playoff series, outscoring Janesville 13-1 in the process. Next up were the Motor City Machine, and the Stars again swept its opposition away. TC scored 14 goals in three games, clinching the best-of-5 series with a 5-3 win on the road.
Perhaps the only negative to come from the first two rounds was the fact that the Stars clinched both series' away from Centre ICE.
Traverse City started off the franchise's first Robertson Cup berth with a 5-4 victory over Wenatchee as Chris Heineman scored the game-winner with 34 seconds left in regulation off a Tim Opie assist.
The offense fizzled a little after that, resulting in losses to St. Louis (4-1) and Bismarck (6-1) before a 2-1 win over eventual Cup finalist Fairbanks. Bismarck went on to win the championship, prevailing 3-0.
Perhaps partially as a result of the team's success, a robust number of TC players advanced to the collegiate ranks, including Sean Burke (Finlandia), Heineman (Wisconsin-Eau Claire), Andy Huff (Ferris State), Kyle Jean (Lake Superior State), Eric McLintock (Wisconsin-River Falls), Chris Paliafito (Sacred Heart), Ran Radke (Lake Superior), Chris Salomone (Wisconsin-River Falls), Nick Shkreli (Lake Superior) and Garrett Thompson (Ferris State).
Between seasons, the Stars became a beneficiary of the Detroit Red Wings' upgrades at Centre ICE, moving into a brand new, NHL-sized locker room as the facility received a big face-lift.
This year, the Stars have started out fairly strongly in one of the league's most competitive divisions. The sixth-place team in the North Division would be in second in the Central Division, three points out of lead.
And despite the tough competition in the North, the Stars have a .617 winning percentage and have won four of their last five going into the new year.