By JAMES COOK
TRAVERSE CITY — Fans going to Traverse City North Stars games this season are likely to see a lot of familiar faces.
Fourteen players on the team's recently-released opening-day roster are either back from last year's squad or local high school players. And some are both.
Seven Traverse City natives dot the roster, as well as Cadillac's Will Badner, who the team traded for in July.
The North Stars are loaded with three Traverse City West alums -- Eric Rivard, Mitchell Snider and Frank Gilbert -- as well as two each from TC Central (Jared VanWormer and Kyle Froese) and the Bay Reps (Jake Peacock and Eric Jones).
The Stars also bring back forwards Alec Shields, Michal Toman, Alex Taulien and Chris Waterstreet as well as defenders Chris Leibinger and Robert Wiener as part of their 24-man roster that is looking to take Traverse City to its fourth straight playoff appearance.
First-year head coach Chad Fournier said having so many local players on the team wasn't necessarily the plan, but it worked out that way after several of them worked their way onto the team with impressive training camp tryouts.
"So far we've heard nothing but good things about having all the local kids," Fournier said. "But, we'll see what happens. Will people come to see us more than they did in the past? I hope so. We'll see when Sept. 28 comes if there's more people in the stands."
The Stars open the home portion of the 2011-12 season that night against Port Huron.
"Frank Gilbert is a very solid, all-around defenseman for us," Fournier said. "Kyle Froese is a very talented, skilled, young defenseman.
"Eric Jones played some of the best hockey I've seen him play (at camp). He played physically, made some plays. Jake Peacock, we're hoping he can give us some of the scoring touch he's shown he has in high school."
Jones played defense for the Reps, but is listed as a forward for the Stars, along with Peacock.
The North Stars selected Gilbert in this year's North American Hockey League draft, dealt for Badner and have Rivard, Snider and VanWormer back from last year's 40-17-1 squad.
"Will (Badner) showed us that he's going to be a big part," Fournier said. "He's got a big body and scoring touch. One of the veterans who really stood out the most is Chris Leibinger. He really showed that he worked very hard this summer and could have a very big role for us. Chris was a very young player last year and will still be young this year, but he learned a lot from his experience last year."
Leibinger is one of just five 1994 birth dates on the team, so even though he has a year of juniors under his belt, he's still one of the squad's youngest players.
Rivard, Snider and VanWormer will be counted on as part of the team's core of nine returning players.
"We expect them to improve on what they've shown us in the past," Fournier said. "Mitchell, unfortunately, has been injured a bit, but he has a bit of scoring touch. Jared VanWormer worked extremely hard and plays very well at both ends of the ice, and Eric Rivard is a big body has a scoring touch."
TC's goalies will be draft pick Michael Parda, a Wisconsin native who played in the Central States Hockey League last season, and Kyle Laslo of the Junior B Kootenay International Junior Hockey League champion Osoyoos Coyotes, where he posted a 32-3-2 record and 1.91 goals-against average. Parda was 14-7 with a 2.98 GAA and .918 save percentage for the Tier III Cleveland Lumberjacks.
"He's an amazing, experienced junior goalie," Fournier said of Laslo. "And we were really looking for some experience after we lost Tyler Marble."
Marble is playing for the Humboldt Broncos in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League this season.
Aside from familiar faces and a recent history of success, the North Stars are hoping a slight change of scenery will also help keep the team in Traverse City after team ownership considered moving the team after last year's poor attendance.
Kalamazoo is being added to the North Division, which loses St. Louis and Chicago. Motor City moved to Jamestown, N.Y., but stays in the retooled division.
"Travel-wise, I think it's going to help us," Fournier said. "We don't have as many weekends where we're going to be away. We have more home-and-homes, so that'll be easier on us."
That means perhaps more miles on the road, but fewer expensive hotel stays.
It also puts the North Division in a more enviable position of having only five teams. In the NAHL, four teams from each division make the playoffs, and now the South Division is in the position the North was in last year, where seven teams are fighting for those four spots.