BY JAMES COOK
---- — TRAVERSE CITY — After the Traverse City North Stars dimmed, the Soo Eagles are flying high.
The North Stars' departure from Traverse City is our No. 2 local sports story of 2012.
The Junior A hockey team had made Centre ICE its home since the 2005-06 season, but owner Raj Weiner sold the franchise to a group from Sault Ste. Marie and it became the Eagles, who are 23-8-3 and atop the North American Hockey League's North Division.
The North Stars had suffered from declining game attendance, despite consistently putting a winning product on the ice.
In fact, some of those North Star alums had an impressive 2012 as Kyle Bonis, Garrett Thompson, Travis White, Andy Huff and C.J. Motte helped Ferris State reach the NCAA national championship game.
As for the North Stars, they ranked 26th of 28 teams in 2011-12, drawing only 440 fans a game. Nearly half the league's teams had an average attendance of over 1,000 a contest.
After drawing an average crowd between 775 and 792 in its first three seasons, TC's top attendance was an 807 average in the 2008-09 season, declining to 649 in 2009-10 and 504 in 2011-11.
Traverse City almost quickly had a replacement, as former North Stars, TC Enforcers and Bay Reps coach Scott Gardiner tried to start a franchise called the Traverse City Cohos in the new Midwest Junior Hockey League. However, with the league's quick start-up, Gardiner wasn't able to sign enough players for the pay-to-play league, and the Cohos decided to go dormant for a season and try to give it another go next year when he can have more time to prepare for the campaign. Several other owners did the same, and the league shrunk from its plan of 14 franchises to 10 for its inaugural season.
Meanwhile, Gardiner is a part owner of the Hartland Hounds in that same league, and the Hounds are an amazing 31-0-0 with a roster that features former Traverse City West players Tyler Thirlby and Alex Grizzel, as well as former Bay Reps defender Scott Luca. Grizzel and Luca had signed tenders with the Cohos — along with TC native Cam Fisher — before the team went dark.
"I spoke with Scott (Gardiner on Saturday)," Centre ICE executive director Terry Marchand said. "He hasn't given up hope on it."
In fact, the two talked about Centre ICE hosting a game between the MWJHL's Hounds and Soo Firehawks in the next few months.
Marchand also said a group how shown interest in bringing a franchise for the NA3HL — a third-year Tier III league that's managed by the North American Hockey League and has three of its 17 teams in Michigan.
Eleven of the current Soo Eagles are former North Stars players, including the team's three top scorers — Eric Rivard, Jared Van Wormer and Alexander Taulien — and both its goalies, Tyler Marble and Zach Naglevoort. Rivard and Van Wormer are tied for fifth in NAHL scoring with 37 points in 33 games, while Naglevoort and Marble are fifth and sixth, respectively, in goals-against average in the 24-team league.