There were hugs, high fives and hearty pats on the back.

There were hugs, high fives and hearty pats on the back.

“It’s like day 1 of your sophomore year in college, or a family reunion – where you get to see friends and family members you haven’t seen for a long time,” Mavericks forward Simon Watson said Wednesday morning, as many of his teammates who returned to their homes over the summer returned to the Independence Events Center as the Central Hockey League team begins its second season.

“Last year, some of us might have known a few players because we played against them somewhere, but this year, we’re back and ready to begin the challenge of bringing a championship to Eastern Jackson County.

“And it’s great to see the next familiar face walk through the locker room door.”

On this day, goaltender Gerry Festa and forward Toby Lafrance joined familiar faces like fellow returnees Carlyle Lewis, Brett Hammond and Derek Pallardy and newcomers Olivier Filion and Ray Dilauro.

“I would have loved to have been here all summer with the other boys from the team,” Lafrance said, “but I couldn’t because of work visas and paper work – you know, it’s tough to come to the states when you’re not playing and working for the Mavericks.

“If I could ever work that out, I’d live here year around. I love Independence and our fans. This is the best place I’ve ever played. I feel like this is home.”

Festa, who teamed with Charlie Effinger (who is now playing in the Elite European League in Newcastle, England) to give the Mavericks the top 1-2 goalie duo in the CHL last season, arrived back in Independence Monday night.

“There’s certainly a different feeling coming back this year,” said Festa, who joined the team halfway through last season. “When you know the guys, know the excitement level in the arena, know how hard Scott (Hillman, head coach) and Brent (Thiessen, president and general manager) have worked to make the team better – you just get excited.

“We can’t wait to get started.”

The team will participate in the first Golf with a Mavericks outing Friday at Drumm Farm Golf Course in Independence.

They will then take physicals and hit the ice for the first official practice Monday.

“It’s a fun time, an exciting time and a tense time,” Hillman said, as he checked e-mails on the laptop in his office. “It’s fun to see the boys coming back to town. It’s exciting to see all the new players and to see everyone’s reaction to all the improvements we have made in the locker room.”

Those improvements include a new paint job, a wall-to-wall mural of the team done by Blue Springs High School grad Jeff Barge, and a large metal sculpture of the team’s mascot on the wall right outside of Hillman’s office.

“But it’s a tense time because we could have 30 players in camp and we can only keep 19,” the coach said, biting his lower lip. “We’re going to have to tell some very good players that they aren’t going to be a part of this team.

“And that’s the only part of this job I don’t enjoy. When you have a player work his heart out, and know that he just doesn’t quite have what it takes, it’s tough to tell him he’s not a part of the future of this team.

“But, last year we were bringing in players who didn’t have the talent or the skills of the players we have this year. So I guess in a way, it’s a problem to have too much talent, but it’s a good problem.”