The Tri-City Outlaws open their season tonight at Toyota Arena, hosting the Bellingham Blazers.
The Outlaws, playing their second season in the Tri-Cities, are coming off a 2012-13 season that saw the team finish with a 17-20-3-0 record and out of the playoff picture.
The Outlaws are under the tutelage of veteran coach Greg Sponholtz, who took over midseason last year for John Nogatch. Sponholtz was coach of the Tri-City Titans (NORPAC) for nine years before taking a break after the Titans folded at the end of the 2009-10 season.
I coached 22 straight years, 11 at the junior level, Sponholtz said. It was time for a break. It took a couple of years, then I got the itch again. I was thinking about going back to the youth program when I got a call (from the Outlaws) wanting me to coach for the weekend while their coach as gone. Then I got a call and was asked to take over. I had to ask my wife. Its a big commitment.
Last year was tough getting back into it. Things werent going real well. I tried to take the team in a different direction the last eight weeks of the season and we started to play pretty well.
The Outlaws have eight players from the Mid-Columbia Antonio Torres, Jason Hambelton, Alexander Higley, Aaron Questad and Christopher Helms of Kennewick; Miller Jackson and Austin Mayton of Richland and Dalton Brown of West Richland.
Thats one of things Ive always had pride in, is the local talent is exceptional, Sponholtz said. Its good for the program. It shows what kind of talent we have here. Local kids are always nice to have. Its easy on the program and the parents are there to help. From a coaching standpoint, I know most o them from the youth program. Im a referee too, so I officiated them at a younger age and I know their tendencies.
This season, the Outlaws are one of five teams in the Northern Pacific Hockey League (NPHL).
The Outlaws and Blazers are joined in the league by the Eugene Generals, West Sound Warriors and Vancouver Vipers. Each team will play a 40-game schedule.
The NPHL Cascade Cup champion will participate in the USA Hockey Tier III Nationals upon completion of the NPHL playoffs.