WILLMAR -- The Willmar Cardinals open the 2012-13 boys hockey campaign this week with the Highway 12 Tour in '12.
This evening the bus goes west to Benson and on Saturday points east to Litchfield to dispute the Stephen Reynolds Memorial New Cream Can.
Last year the Cardinals went 1-1, beating the Morris/Benson Area Storm 7-3 at the Cardinal Arena but falling on their own ice to the Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato Dragons 4-3.
U.S. Highway 12 stretches from the bridge to Canada at Port Huron, Mich., to Aberdeen, Wash., where it ends at a stop light in the city's downtown, the very last block containing a Kurt Cobain memorabilia store.
It would be presumptuous to call this the Highway 12 Championship Series but perhaps it would not be unreasonable to think of it Minni-12 Trifecta.
After each lost only a half-dozen regulars to graduation, all three squads will put veteran lineups on the ice. The Cardinals list 12 returning letter winners and the Dragons and the Storm 14 apiece.
Top scorers back for coach James Kennedy's Storm are Tanner Picht (26-18-44), Mac Beyer (15-19-34), Brody Gimberlin (14-11-15) and defenseman Jordan Staples (2-19-2) The Storm finished 5-4-1 in the Southwest Conference and 10-14-1 overall.
The Cardinals went 10-18 last winter and 3-12-1 in the Central Lakes, losing to Fergus Falls in the Section 6A semifinals.
Coach Dan Tollefson will put out a first line of center Hunter Schneider (23-26-49), and wingers Zech Streed (11-14-25) and Ryan Woltjer, up from the JV. Next out will be center Hunter Mottinger (10-9-19) with wingers Cole Hagen 3-2-5) and Joey Lee (1-5-6).
Junior goaltender Levi Goosman comes up from the JV with one varsity start with Joey Benson also available. Top defensive pairs are Preston Peterson/Buzzy Tollefson, Cole Block/Tyler Pendill and Tony Kallevig/Sam Roberts.
Willmar can just about flip-flop results of a year ago by reversing its record in one-goal games (3-7).
Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato head coach Chris Olson will look for scoring from senior forwards Mike Spreiter (9-10-19), Aaron Haataja (4-9-13) and Kent Ryynanen (6-7-13) and defenseman Chad Johnson (1-6-7). The Dragons have two tested goalies in Braeden Wahl and Tyler Helonen. It's a lineup sure to improve on last season's winless tour of the Wright County Conference.
The Dragons will open Thursday against the River Lake Stars at the Litchfield Civic Arena. The Stars went 14-13 last year with a pair of wins over both Willmar and LDC. They open tonight at Paynesville against Prairie Centre. The Stars will be the guests at Willmar's home opener Dec. 6. The Stars also play home games at the Richmond Arena.