By Dave Hart

The Muskegon Lumberjacks’ 2018-19 season is here – even sooner than anyone expected it.

In the past, the United States Hockey League’s Fall Classic, a series of games at one site between all the league teams, was part of the preseason exhibition schedule.

But in mid-July, one week after the release of this season’s regular-season schedule, the league announced that the Fall Classic games would count as regular season games.

So the Jacks will open the regular season with two games at the tournament in Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania this weekend, including a Friday opener against the Fargo Force at 2 p.m.

On Saturday they will face the Sioux City Musketeers at 8 p.m.

Muskegon will continue its 62-game schedule October 5-6 with back-to-back road games against the Youngstown Phantoms, before finally opening up at home on Oct. 13 against the Chicago Steel.

The Jacks will enter the new season with new look, particularly in leadership.

They have a new general manager, Ryan Bennett, who served for several years in the same role for the Chicago Steel. He replaces former GM John Vanbiesbrouck, who took a high-level job with the U.S. Olympic development program.

The Jacks will also have a new head coach – Mike Hamilton – who has been a highly successful coach at the midget major level in the Detroit area for years. He replaces former coach John LaFontaine, who was fired after last season.

The Lumberjacks finished the 2017-18 season with a 33-25-2 record, which was good for third place in the USHL’s Eastern Conference. They were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the Chicago Steel.

The Lumberjacks are returning five defensemen, six forwards and a goaltender from last season’s squad.

The defensive corps will be led by Colby Bukes, who is entering his third season in Muskegon and will be one of the team’s captains.

Bukes played in 59 games last season for the Lumberjacks, scoring four goals and picking up 24 assists for 28 points.

Nash Nienhuis (58 games, no goals, 6 assists), Matt Staudacher (54 games, no goals, 3 assists), Alex Yakovenko (31 games, 3 goals, 14 assists) and Hunter Skinner (31 games) also return to the Muskegon blue line.

Muskegon returns six forwards, led by Egor Afanasyev, who scored six goals and notched eight assists in 45 games of action.

Nolan Sullivan, who was also named a captain, returns after playing 59 games last season for the Lumberjacks. He scored three goals and picked up four assists.

Benito Posa (38 games, 2 goals, 4 assists), Jagger Joshua (28 games, 2 goals, 3 assists), Cam Knuble (6 games, 1 goal, no assists), and Owen Farris (4 games) also return to lead the offensive attack.

The Jacks will count heavily on a rookie, forward Alex Gaffney, who was tendered by the team prior to the USHL draft, after tallying 39 goals and 31 assists in 47 games for the New Jersey Avalanche last season.

Veteran goalie Keegan Karki will return between the pipes. He posted a 24-16 record for the Lumberjacks last season with a 3.20 goals against average.