It's been 144 days of waiting, but the Kitchener Rangers are back on the ice tonight to start their 2018-19 OHL campaign.
The defending Midwest Division Champions play host to the Flint Firebirds at 7:30 p.m. at The Aud.
(Mike Farwell and Chris Pope will have the call on 570 NEWS, starting with the pregame at 7:00 p.m.)
And it's a much-different looking Ranger team than the one that took the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds to double overtime in Game 7 of the Western Conference Final back on April 30.
But with a combination of youth and experience, Head Coach Jay McKee says this edition is quite the competitive bunch.
"I think we had a solid preseason," he said, "We put a lot of time and energy into getting guys on board with the systems and we made some changes from what we were doing last year. I think it's going to be to our benefit, the way that we're built and we want to play a fast, aggressive style of game."
"I think the guys are excited. We had a long training camp with only a couple games in the past two and a half, three weeks so I think they're excited to play."
So what can Ranger fans expect this year?
"We're going to try and be creative offensively," says McKee, "We're going to have our D jumping up in the rush. We want to be a team to utilize our assets and we're very competitive. We have a lot of team speed, we have a lot of feistiness through our forward groups so we're going to let them loose and hopefully, it should be an exciting style of hockey to watch."
They'll put it to the test against a Firebirds team that finished 20-43-3-2 last year, and in the basement of the Western Conference.
"Flint's got a good team," McKee said, "I think they're very well-coached, they're going to have a better team this year than they had last year. This league can be cyclical at times. Sometimes, when you have a couple seasons where you're struggling a little bit, you get the high draft picks and you trade away some veteran players."
"They're going to be a good team this year and we got our hands full right from Day 1."
MIXING OLD WITH NEW
For Kitchener's part, McKee says there will be veterans that will be playing in new situations this year, along with more ice time.
As for the younger guys, he feels they've adapted well to the new system.
"I think they've all been very attentive and eager to learn," he said, "We've worked a lot of systems so we have an understanding that with those guys, they're going to make some mistakes. There's going to be some growing pains here and there and I think it's important as a coach to have patience and build on their confidence, first and foremost."
"Spinning off that, I think our leadership group, our older guys have been great at accepting the younger guys and making them feel a part of the team and just giving them some added confidence that way."
One of the new faces on the team is the Rangers' first-round selection in the 2018 OHL Priority Selection, Reid Valade.
He says everyone's itching to get the season underway, and feels comfortable with the team.
"It's been really good," says Valade, "We've got a lot of skilled and really good players that have been here a couple years so just trying to learn everything from them and kind of follow them, letting them show me the ropes."
And it's not just his teammates that have taken a liking to his game.
"A guy like Reid, you can see has all the tools," McKee said about the rookie, "For him, it's just going to be about getting the experience, getting put in situations where he can succeed and build on his confidence."
"He's got a great shot. He's got good vision. He competes really hard. He's got good speed so he has all the tools, we just got to bring him along here slowly and like I said, confidence in this sport's a huge thing and we want to make sure he keeps that and is feeling good out on the ice and we get him into situations where he can have some fun out there."
Valade scored 31 goals for the Toronto Malboros minor midget squad last year, and goals will be a hot commodity on this year's team.
Greg Meireles will be into his third full season with the Rangers, and will be one of the veterans being looked at for production.
"We lost a lot of goal scoring guys from last year so I think some of us have to step up," he said, "I don't know about feeling too much pressure (in stepping up offensively), I think just go out there and have fun."
NO CAPTAIN MY CAPTAIN
One thing Meireles won't have will be the "C" on his chest.
He, along with a couple other vets, wore it during the preseason. But to start the 2018-19 campaign, nobody will be wearing it for the Rangers. And it's by design, according to McKee.
The longtime Buffalo Sabre says teams at the pro level are doing the same thing, citing his former rival Toronto Maple Leafs as an example.
"I think when you have a room that has a number of guys that could wear the letter, I don't think you need to be in a rush to throw it on somebody," he said.
"I think, I hate to say it's used as a carrot to see what guys are going to do. But sometimes, when you don't select a captain, it just gets guys to elevate their leadership roles. They certainly would like to wear it but we'll probably rotate some 'A's right now and just take some time."
Plus, there is one other factor at play: Connor Bunnaman.
Last year's Ranger captain is still in pro camp, though the Philadelphia Flyers announced Thursday afternoon that Bunnaman and 10 others have been sent to Lehigh Valley, their AHL affiliate.
Now, it is a long shot --- and it is something GM Mike McKenzie alluded to in an interview with Mike Farwell earlier this month, and echoed by McKee Thursday afternoon --- but he is eligible to return to the OHL.
"You don't want to go pulling the trigger too early and putting it on somebody, and then two to three weeks, find out that your captain from last year's back," McKee said, "We're really in no hurry here. I like Toronto's philosophy of taking their time and making sure they have the right guys so we're going to start the season without a captain."
"But we do have a lot of guys that I think could wear that type of letter."
The Rangers will have a familiar face in net to start the year.
Luke Richardson, 19, played in 39 games last season but lost his starting job halfway through the year to Mario Culina.
McKee says Richardson has put on some weight, and got a bit stronger during the offseason.
"He looks big in the net, he's moving well, he's always been a goalie that's confident and I think he's being pushed as well by (Lucas) Pfeil this year," McKee added, "I think Lucas Pfeil has come in and I think really taking big strides from the Lucas Pfeil that we saw last year."
"Luke Richardson's definitely our starter. It's good that he's being pushed but I like what we're seeing out of both our goalies right now."