Hearst Lumberjacks are building on to their fan platform as they prepare for their second season as members of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League.
The Lumberjacks, who finished second on the NOJHL attendance chart in 2017-2018, trailing only the much-bigger market Timmins Rock, have sold almost 500 season tickets ahead of the 2018-2019 campaign.
Timmins topped the attendance scale in the 12-team NOJHL in 2017-2018 with a per-game average of 862. Hearst was next with an average attendance of 691, just ahead of the Michigan Soo Eagles, who came in third at 615.
At any rate, with almost 500 season tickets sold preparatory to the 2018-2019 term, suffice to say that the locals in Hearst love their Lumberjacks.
“We can’t wait for the puck to drop on the upcoming season,” Lumberjacks president Patrick Vaillancourt told Hockey News North.
The Lumberjacks first home game of the 2018-2019 regular season is slated for Sunday, Sept. 9 at 4 p.m. against the French River Lumberjacks. And there is a meet and greet that has been organized for the day of the home opener.
“On the morning of game day the Knights of Columbus will be hosting a ‘Welcome Back Lumberjack Brunch’ at the Conseil des Arts from 9:00 a.m. to 12 noon for the players and community … come out and meet your Lumberjacks,” exclaimed Vaillancourt.
A tiny town of about 4,800 that is tucked away in a northeastern Ontario nook a good 340 miles away from Sault Ste. Marie, Hearst is a hockey hotbed that is the birth place of Claude Giroux, the 30-year old captain of the Philadelphia Flyers of the National Hockey League.
In fact, Giroux made a big financial contribution to the Lumberjacks that allowed them to purchase the Iroquois Falls Eskis franchise and relocate it to Hearst in time for the start of the 2017-2018 season. Giroux serves as the team ambassador for the Lumberjacks.
The Lumberjacks play out of the Claude Larose Recreation Centre — named after another Hearst hockey hero.
Now 75-years old, Claude Larose was a hard-nosed forward who rose to NHL fame with the Montreal Canadiens. In all, Larose played in more than 1,000 NHL games, playoffs included — and wears multiple Stanley Cup championship rings.
Despite being a French-speaking town with a Francophone population of more than 90 per cent, the Lumberjacks have managed to recruit players from several Canadian provinces outside Ontario as well a number of American states.
Hearst native son Marc Lafleur is the reputable coach and general manager of the Lumberjacks.
Lafleur spent five years in a similar role with the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners, who he coached to an NOJHL championship in 2014 and a pair of Dudley-Hewitt Cup, Central Canada tournament appearances, before he moved back to his hometown to take over as the Hearst hockey boss prior to the start of the 2017-2018 season.
Lafleur also has a multitude of international experience, having served on the coaching staff of Canada East at four World Jr. A Challenge events, including winning a silver medal in 2016. He has also been an assistant coach with the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies of the Quebec Major Jr. Hockey League.
To be sure, Lafleur has set lofty expectations for the Lumberjacks for their second NOJHL season in Hearst following an intense off-season of recruiting. The Lumberjacks finished in fourth place in the East Division in 2017-2018, a standing that did not sit well with the hard-driven Lafleur.
“Our expectations are to compete for the league title this season,” the 43-year old Lafleur said evenly.
At the gate and on the ice, the Lumberjacks are a hot topic in Hearst.
PHOTO: Fans take in a Lumberjacks game at the Claude Larose Recreation Centre in Hearst.