Toyota Arena will be alive with hockey this winter as the Tri-City Outlaws begin their inaugural season in the Northern Pacific Hockey League (NORPAC).
“A lot has changed in the NORPAC since the Titans left,” said Outlaws owner Jordan Owen of the former Tri-City hockey team that played its final season in 2009-10.
The NORPAC, which features players aged 16-20, welcomed the Outlaws with open arms.
“It’s exciting to have a team back in Tri-Cities after a two-year absence as that market is excellent for the development of the junior aged hockey player,” said Flint Doungchak, Deputy Commissioner of NORPAC, in a news release.
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Owen, a Kennewick native, said he brought the team to life so local players would have a place to play, and for local referees to build their skills.
“The TCAHA (Tri-City Amateur Hockey Association) numbers were down and players were going to other junior programs,” Owen said. “Bringing in this team, we will get 10 to 12 local players and give them a chance to move up and play.”
The Outlaws, who are in the middle of training camp, will carry 25 players this season. In camp, they have players from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, California and Nevada.
John Nogatch, who coached the Vancouver Victory of the NORPAC last season, will coach the Outlaws. He will be assisted by Troy Nelson.
“All of our coaches and officials are trained by USA Hockey,” Owen said.
Other teams in the league include the Bellingham Blazers, Eugene Generals, Glacier Nationals (White Fish, Mont.), Vancouver Vipers and West Sound Warriors (Bremerton).
Each player pays a fee of $6,000 to play on the team, and an additional $300 per month to their billet family.
Owen said the prices are equal throughout the league, and that teams are audited to make sure every player has paid their fees.
Tri-City players will be able to avoid the billet fees by living at home.
Taking advantage of that discount will be left wing Alex Higley, 18, of Kennewick.
Higley played in Park City, Utah, last year, but a neck injury cut his season short — he played just 10 games — and he came back to Kennewick.
Healthy, Higley is ready to lend his experience to the Outlaws.
“Jordan talked to my dad in November when I got back,” said Higley, who has played hockey since he was 4 years old. “I’ve known about this (the Outlaws) for quite a while. It was tough being away from home. It will be nice to play here and live at home.”
Higley hopes to improve his game and move on to the next level.
“Being able to play next door (with the Tri-City Americans) would be a long shot, but at another level or college would be nice,” Higley said. “Playing here, we are getting that chance.”
Mike Doubrava, a 2010 Richland High graduate, is one of the Outlaws overage players. He played for the Seattle Totems last year.
“It’s a lot nicer to live at home and be 2 minutes from the rink,” said Doubrava, who plays right wing. “And there’s no traffic.”
Doubrava, who grew up in Vancouver, has played hockey from a young age. He is looking forward to helping the younger players.
“They are curious about junior hockey and it will be nice to show them the ropes,” Doubrava said.
The Outlaws will begin league play Oct. 5 against Bellingham at Toyota Arena.