THE OFFICIAL SITE OF THE NORTHERN ONTARIO JUNIOR HOCKEY LEAGUE

The puck stops here

The battle to see who will be the Abitibi Eskimos No. 1 puck stopper for the 2012-13 Northern Ontario Junior ‘A’ Hockey League campaign will be a three-man race.    Martin Bilodeau, who backed up J.P. Fecteau last season, is looking to stake his claim on the top job as the Eskimos prepare for the start of the regular season on home ice Sept. 8 against the visiting Sudbury Nickel Barons.   “Martin does have a bit of a head start, but he won’t be taking things for granted, I know that, because he has got two more goalies here that have the potential to take his spot,” said Eskimos coach and general manager Paul Gagne.   “He was with us last year, so we will give him the opportunity, but he is going to have to take it.”   Gagne would not be surprised, however, if Bilodeau does grab hold of the reigns and stake his claim to the top spot.   “He showed a real commitment last year,” Gagne said.   “He worked hard in practice. It was hard to be motivated because he was No. 2, basically … because Fecteau played most of the games.”   Bilodeau did get into 18 games with the Eskimos, posting a 4.68 goals against average and a .860 saves percentage.   “Having played 18 games, he does have an edge on the other two goalies,” Gagne said.   “Because he has played Junior ‘A,’ he knows what it takes … what it’s going to take in practice, the hard work and the commitment.   “What he brings now is that experience and hopefully he can bloom for us. He loves the game and he wants to play. He’s got that going for him.”   For his part, Bilodeau has some simple goals for 2012-13: “To be better than last year and bring the team to the playoffs and go to the finals.”   The goaltender was on the ice all summer in hopes of being sharp for the start of training camp.   “I was training four times a week and I worked out a little bit,” Bilodeau said.   He is confident, given the core group the Eskimos have coming back, that Abitibi will have a successful season in 2012-13.   “I think we are going to have a nice season here,” he said.   Bilodeau will be challenged by 19-year-old Rochester, Minn., native Nick Heimer who split last season among two North American Hockey League teams — the Fairbanks Ice Dogs (3.20 goals against average, .888 saves percentage) and the New Mexico Mustangs (4.45 goals against average, .899 saves percentage), as well as the Twin Cities Northern Lights (3.10 goals against average, .910 saves percentage in the regular season and 2.13 goals against average and .926 saves percentage in the playoffs) of the Minnesota Junior Hockey League.   Heimer doesn’t know a great deal about the NOJHL, but he is confident he will be able to pick it up quickly.   “I have had some former coaches who have played in the league and I am looking forward to it,” he said.   Heimer describes himself as, “kind of a butterfly-style goalie.   “I like to go down a lot,” he said. “It’s a strength of mine … covering the lower part of the net.”   Heimer tries to pattern his game after Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, but when he was growing up his favourite player was New Jersey Devils netminder Martin Brodeur.   “He’s one of the best, if not the best, goalie to ever play in the NHL,” he said.   Heimer is looking forward to working with Bilodeau in the Eskimos net and hopes the veteran will be able to help guide him through his first experiences in the NOJHL.   “I think we will work well together,” he said.   Bilodeau and Heimer will both see action when the Eskimos play a home-and-home series with the Gold Miners — Friday in Kirkland Lake and Saturday at the Jus Jordan Arena.   A third netminder, 16-year-old Marc Audet, is expected to make it a three-way battle when he arrives next week from the training camp of the Ontario Hockey League’s Sarnia Sting.   Also American born, he was selected in the 15th round by the Sting from the Rocky Mountain Roughriders.   “We’ve got our scouting reports on them (Heimer and Audet) and scouting reports are great, but once you start playing junior hockey, it’s a different story,” Gagne said.   “We’ve got a 16 year old who played in Colorado last year … played midget, at 16 years old and then will come here and play.   “No matter how great his stats were last year, it’s a totally different team here and you are playing against men.   “You are playing against some of the best players in Ontario. It’s hard to evaluate them. That’s why we need this week and a couple of exhibition games to see these goaltenders when it’s time to play the game … when there’s pressure involved.”