By Ron Rop
Local Sports Journal

I must admit I am impressed by the Muskegon Lumberjacks through eight games of the season.

Oh sure, there is a long way to go, but I’ve watched first hand how this team struggled on the ice the last two seasons.

Muskegon Lumberjack Chris Leibinger, left, has been one of the many bright spots for the Jacks in the early going. Photo/Ellen DeLuca

I watched soft goals being scored by the opponent because the goaltending was suspect.

I watched third-period leads disappear in the matter of minutes.

I watched a team that seemed more focused on beating up the opponent with their fists instead of beating them up on the scoreboard.

There has been a 180-degree turn in the course of this past off-season.

Balanced scoring, a solid defense and top-notch goaltending have landed the Lumberjacks in uncharted territory for this franchise – first place, not only in the Eastern Conference, but first overall in the 16-team league.

This weekend, the Lumberjacks will face two more formidable foes. Waterloo has lost one of seven games and Green Bay, year in and year out, is one of the top franchises in the league. Just because they’ve struggled out of the gate is no reason to take them lightly.

The Gamblers are a bit on the young side right now so they may need a few months to get their act together.

Hey, that sounds familiar. The Lumberjacks were youthful, inexperienced and that led to two years of struggles on the ice.

However, the coaching staff must be commended. Owner Josh Mervis must be commended.

Over the course of one off-season, the coaching staff recruited, drafted and rattled the bushes for older, more experienced players. Mervis took his annual trip overseas to talk to coaches and watch talented players.

He was instrumental in bringing Rasmus Bengtsson to the Jacks last season. He is not only a second-round draft pick of the NHL’s Florida Panthers, but is considered to be one of the top players in the USHL.

Goaltender Kevin Lindskoug has five victories and one shootout loss and a goals-against-average among the league leaders.

The list goes on and on of guys who are producing.

Now comes the challenge to Muskegon area hockey fans.

Check out this team. They are worth the price of admission.

If you saw the Jacks in either of the two previous season, give them another chance.

Wipe the slate clean.

This is a whole new team with a whole new attitude. They’ve worked hard in the off-season to get bigger, better stronger.

Muskegon has supported hockey for 52 years. Muskegon has celebrated its Turner Cups and its Colonial Cups. Area hockey fans also have endured seasons when they couldn’t win 20 games in an 80-game schedule.

Yes, we’re just eight games into a 64-game schedule.

It’s way too early to make any bold predictions on how this season will turn out.

But it is time for area hockey fans to give this team another chance.