TRAVERSE CITY — On Friday, John Posler is one step closer to a dream.
The former Bay Reps goaltender will play a Junior A hockey game in his home town when the Midwest Junior Hockey League’s Soo Firehawks and Hartland Hounds square off in an exhibition game at Centre ICE.
“That’s the most exciting thing — coming here and finding out I get to play in front of my home fans,” the Firehawks goalie said. “That was my dream when I moved to Traverse City was to play for the North Stars and play in front of my friends. Now it’s actually going to get to come true. It’s pretty exciting.”
He was recently traded to Sault Ste. Marie and made his Firehawks debut with a 6-2 victory over the Rhinelander Street Cats in which he made 47 saves. That performance earned Posler his third MWJHL Goalie of the Week honor.
“I’m feeling pretty good going into this game,” Posler said. “I’ve got a lot of confidence from that.”
Game time is 7:30 p.m., and tickets are $5. Grand Traverse Hockey Association players who wear their jersey get into the game for free.
“We want to showcase the league and generate some interest,” said Hounds co-owner Scott Gardiner, who tried to start up a Traverse City team in the league last year. “We really want to give Traverse City another shot next year.”
The contest features five Traverse City natives returning home.
Alex Grizzel, Tyler Thirlby, Scott Luca and Cam Fisher play for Hartland, and Posler for the Soo.
Fisher is eighth in the league in scoring with 33 goals and 31 assists in 33 games. Thirlby and Grizzel each have 33 points — in 21 games for Grizzel and 38 for Thirlby — and Luca has 19 points in only 16 games, which puts him at 16th in scoring among the league’s defensemen. Posler has a .910 save percentage, which is second in the MWJHL.
Fisher was traded from Holland to Hartland on Jan. 21 for defenseman Nikolay Bakanov. Posler’s trade from Holland to the Firehawks came two weeks later.
So now the former teammates are facing off Friday.
“John is a good goalie,” Fisher said. “There’s not many holes (to shoot at). Just like any other goalie, you have to make him move and find the holes.”
The teams are the MWJHL’s two most dominant squads this season. Hartland has only lost once in 46 contests and the Soo has an .814 winning percentage and 33 victories.
“Our team is just on a higher level than everyone else, it seems like,” Luca said. “We’ve had success everywhere we go.”
“Soo is definitely going to be a test,” Fisher said. “In my opinion, they’re the second-best team in the league and they’re a good, solid team. It’ll be a good game Friday.”
If the Firehawks can beat third-place Tennyson in next month’s playoffs, they’ll earn one of the league’s two spots in the national tournament. The Hounds are a good bet to have the other slot, and the two would play a series to determine the MWJHL champion, but both would still head to nationals.
“We want to show Hartland that we can beat them in the finals,” Posler said.
Hartland, Sault Ste. Marie and Tennyson are locked into the top three seeds in the four-team league tournament.
“It’s been different, that’s for sure — a lot different than playing for the Reps and staying in one place for high school hockey,” Posler said. “Practices are a bit longer and everything is harder. We’re going harder because we know we’re going into the playoffs against Tennyson in about a month. Hartland will be a good test for us Friday.”
Luca said he’d definitely consider playing at home if Gardiner’s Traverse City Cohos can make it work next season.
“It’d be definitely interesting if we could keep a team here,” Luca said. “It wouldn’t be as much travel.”
“My first option right now is trying to go to the North American Hockey League,” said Fisher, 16. “I’ve been talking to a few teams in that league. But I’m still young, so I might play another year for the Traverse City team next year and then go somewhere. We’ll see where I end up next year.”
The Hounds feature four other players who all recently committed to play NCAA Division III college hockey at Finlandia University — Andrew Brownlee, Jake Henrikson, Thomas Kerr and Cam Miglia. Brownlee leads the MWJHL in all goaltending categories, including wins (29), goals-against average (1.87), save percentage (.932), shutouts (five) and minutes played (1734:58). He is also a three-time Goaltender of the Week and a two-time Goaltender of the Month.
“I have a lot of friends and family who are going to come,” Luca said. “It should be a good game. I know the other guys are excited.”