Jets rev their engines for takeoff
At a glance
What: Janesville Jets vs. Traverse City North Stars.
Where: Janesville Ice Skating Center, 821 Beloit Ave.
When: 7 p.m., Saturday.
Tickets: Adults ($9), students/seniors ($7), kids age 5 and under free.
Probable Janesville lineup: Goaltender—Matt Wichorek. Forwards—Ross Mauermann, Casey Kirley, Billy Mulligan. Defensemen—Mike Thompson, Tyler Sorenson. Second line—Rui Encarnacao, West Hawkins, Ethan Nauman. Third line—Larkin Jacobson, Derek Jacobson, Cam Severson. Fourth line—Jared Bertsch, Mason Walters, Jordan Bancroft.
Finally, it’s time to drop the puck.
A new era in Janesville sports takes center stage Saturday night when the Janesville Jets junior hockey team makes its NAHL debut. The Jets will host North Division favorite Traverse City in a 7 o’clock game at the Janesville Ice Skating Center. The teams will wrap up their series at 2 p.m. Sunday.
“Saturday will be exciting,” Jets coach Dane Litke said. “I’ve been through it before. Maybe I’m a little nervous. I can’t wait for it to come. I’m anxious to see how good we are.
“It’s been hectic putting a team together, getting moved down here, getting my family settled in,” said Litke, whose title also includes general manager of hockey operations. “I like the hockey side, the coaching and the teaching, more than the administration side.”
It’s been more than a year since Jets president Bill McCoshen came up with the idea of pursuing an NAHL expansion franchise in Janesville. Now his dream is a day away from reality.
The trip from dream stage to reality included several twists and turns, however. Before the NAHL granted the Jets expansion status, the team had to convince the Janesville City Council to approve a $200,000 renovation package for the Janesville Ice Skating Center. The team also requested, and after much debate, received permission to sell alcohol at its games.
All of that led to a thumbs up from the 20-team, 34-year-old league and a scramble to get a team on the ice. In May, the Jets named Litke as head coach, hired John McCally as general manager and made goaltender Matt Wichorek the team’s first pick in the NAHL draft.
The Wisconsin Hockey Partners, counting its NAHL expansion fee and startup costs, will have close to $600,000 sunk into getting the Jets off the ground.
The Jets hosted two open tryouts—one in Duluth, Minn. and the other in Janesville. The team invited 100 players to a final tryout, culminating with a 40 players competing for 26 roster spots in an Aug. 2 all-star game.
The players opened their training camp on Aug. 30, played CSHL powerhouse Dubuque in a pair of exhibition games, and are now ready to begin a 58-game NAHL schedule in which they will play six games between Saturday night and next Friday.
Former Janesville Bluebird standout Ross Mauermann earned one of the spots on the final roster and scored a goal in the team’s first exhibition game. For the moment, he’s the face of the franchise, but the long season will give the rest of the Jets a chance to become fan favorites as well.
“The guys will be excited about Saturday night,” Litke said. “They need to handle their emotions and keep their emotions in check.
Sun Prairie’s Deb Vesling, who won the contest to name the team, will drop the ceremonial first puck Saturday night.
“Opening night is always a show. It’s for the fans. You just hope the guys stay focused,” Litke said.
The Jets will need that focus against a Traverse City squad that returns 12 players from a team that won 37 games last year. The top returnee is forward Kyle Jean, who had 22 goals and 21 assists last season.
“Traverse City is the talk of the North,” Litke said. “In a way, it’s kind of good to play them in the opener. It lets us know where we’re at.”
Meanwhile, McCally said the team will be adding a second ticket window to accommodate what is expected to be a rather large walk-up crowd.
“Ticket sales have picked up, but until we get going, it’s going to be more and more of a walk-up crowd at the games,” McCally said. “The people around here are used to buying tickets the night of their high school games. The word of mouth for our team is spreading.”
McCally has been racing to fill out the team’s promotional schedule and plans to have a list of giveaway and theme nights to announce by the end of the month.
Best Buy will be giving away Jets items to the first 200 fans on Saturday, including cups, towels and beverage koozies with the team logo. Buffalo Wild Wings will also have various giveaways during the game.
But the real question as the Jets sit on the tarmac is this: How good can an expansion franchise be?
Several in league history have made the playoffs in their debut seasons.
McCoshen has established that as his team’s goal.
“We’re going to make the playoffs,” he said at a recent promotional event for season-ticket holders. “We like our team.”
McCoshen and his six co-owners hope Janesville fans like the team, too.