If I was technically savvy enough to employ an embedded audio file into this blog that blared Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys are Back in Town” all of my readers could be rockin’ out while they ingest some of my latest thoughts and ramblings. Sadly I am not. However, the boys are most certainly back in town as several Ice Bears began trickling into the 865 this week sporting car loads of everything they’ll need for another season in Knoxville, Tennessee.
It’s exciting for everyone around town and the organization because the arrival of players can really only mean one thing; it’s time. As of this evening as I write this blog, the clock reads roughly 11 days and 13 hours until our first ice session of the 2013 training camp. That’s less than two weeks – just over two work weeks – and depending on who’s counting it could also be considered soon.
Before the contracted players arrive though, my staff and I have a 3 day Free Agent Showcase mini-camp that will kick off on Friday evening down at the Civic Coliseum. That is of course if Mickey, Minnie and the gang don’t tear up the ice too badly over the next few days during Disney on Ice. I was down at ice level this afternoon watching some of the performers warm up and I can report that, wow, they were impressive on many levels with their athleticism and control.
Our Free Agent Showcase will feature a record number of Ice Bear hopefuls from all over the world who have paid their way to Knoxville in an attempt to be seen and earn an invite to our main camp. Just to break that down a little bit for those who are unfamiliar with the difference in the two camps, it’s fairly simple. Our Free Agent Showcase is for non-contracted Free Agents and anyone from anywhere can register provided they are 18 years of age. Our Main Camp consists of contracted players (tryout contracts that is) who I have recruited and invited to Knoxville for our training camp.
I really enjoy the environment that’s created by the arrival of our Free Agent guys and I look forward to it every season. After a long summer of recruiting players, negotiating contracts and trying to convince guys to come to Knoxville, it’s nice to then sit back and watch players who are doing everything they can to convince us that they should be in Knoxville. Definitely a nice change of pace along with a great way to establish perspective towards how lucky we are to be able to do what we do on a daily basis.
It’s no secret to anyone – even the players themselves – that making the Ice Bears roster out of the Free Agent Camp is somewhat of a longshot. In the 3 seasons that I have run this camp, 11 players have been selected to go through to the main camp and only 1 has seen SPHL game action for us. Longshot or not though, this camp serves as an opportunity for players who don’t have a strong enough resume or don’t have the connections in the hockey community to get a main camp tryout.
We’ve certainly had our fair share of excellent stories over the years come out of this camp, and I’m hoping that trend continues. Players like forward Aaron Blades from California who showed up to camp with 3 years ago with skates that were so broken down and beaten up that he had to borrow a pair to finish the weekend. Finish it he did alright and not only did Aaron play in 3 SPHL exhibition games, but after being the final cut from our Main Camp he went on to achieve his dream of playing pro hockey for the Troy Bruins of the AAHL later that season. Or maybe a pair of Canadian hopefuls from last season in Matt Varnes and Matthew Jacobucci who stood out above the pack during the mini-camp and one week later found themselves taking a pre-game skate at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville.
This edition of our Free Agent Showcase will feature over 50 players who will infiltrate Knoxville, Tennessee for a shot to play pro hockey and who knows…. Maybe this is the year one of them skates out onto the ice at the Coliseum on opening night. I sure hope so.
Moving on, let’s chat about Main Camp for a few minutes. With a league enforced limit of 30 players in camp at one time, it makes the next few weeks vitally important for coaches at this level. Not only do you need to recruit the best possible prospective rookies, but also keep in mind that with ECHL camps kicking off on October 4th that there will be a large number of players who get released from those camps during the first week of our camp, or even earlier. It makes your practices and camp scrimmages extremely big for first year guys who need to make impressions in a hurry before that first wave of ECHL cuts comes pouring in. That’s not to say that every player released from an ECHL camp gets an automatic ticket into an SPHL city – though some feel that they should – and it doesn’t even mean that every SPHL camp is affected by ECHL transactions. But it does add an element of available options if your first impression of some guys isn’t overly good or you’re definitely looking to upgrade in certain areas.
Take last season for example. In an NHL lockout season that saw the largest number of available free agents that I can ever remember which lead to an equally large number of ECHL releases, the Ice Bears roster was only altered during training camp by two ECHL transaction. Those transactions were Jon Higgins being released from the Alaska Aces camp and Mike Towns from Idaho. Both players were inserted into our line-up and reciprocating releases were made to accommodate them. The year before that during our 2011-2012 training camp, not a single ECHL release had an impact on our line-up, so you really never know how many players you’ll absorb from year to year. I can say that as of right now, I have several players who have signed tryout agreements with the Ice Bears and several others who I’m targeting who will be attending Coast camps and I will definitely be bringing in – or at least attempting to bring in - should they not make their respective teams.
As of today, returning players who will be reporting to our camp on Sunday, October 13th for physicals are the following; Mark Van Vliet, David Segal, Jon Higgins, Brett Valliquette, Peter Neal, Jeremy Klaver, Eric Satim, Nate Peterson, Brad Pawlowski and Bryan Hince. We will have an extremely established defensive core starting the season in front of Hincey and most of the question marks and job availability will come up front with our forward line-up. To help fill some of those holes, some non-rookie players have been invited to camp after spending time elsewhere in the SPHL last season. Keep an eye open for forwards Brent Tamane and Jay Pietrasiak who will be looking to earn jobs on our top two forward lines. All in all, this training camp will be no different from any other as many new faces will be in town hoping to earn themselves a spot on our opening day roster.
Lastly, I thought I’d weigh in on one of the latest hot button, water cooler hockey discussion topics involving the place of fighting in the sport of hockey. I’ve gotten what seems like hundreds of emails, social media messages, texts, etc about this current surge of anti-fight activists and the future of fighting in the game of hockey. This is usually the time of year when everyone is simply excited for the return of hockey and most conversation and media buzz surrounds projection and early season favorites, etc. Right now though, with a scary and unfortunate injury suffered by Montreal Canadiens enforcer George Parros during a fight on opening night vs the Maple Leafs, the vocal minority have grabbed their pitchforks and lit torches to storm the gates of the hockey fraternity.
My position is fairly straight forward and simple on this one and I’ll refrain from a lengthy, drawn out, politically correct fence sitting statement; I support fighting in professional hockey. I don’t just support it because I spent most of my career trying to find my gloves, stopping bloody noses and icing knuckles along with foreheads, jaws and anywhere else someone popped me. And I don’t simply support it because I am quite entertained – like millions of other hockey fans - by two guys slugging it out while balancing on 1.5 mm steel blades. And I promise I don’t just support fighting in the game because I’m Canadian and well…. that’s how we were raised eh? I support the inclusion of fighting in professional hockey because it maintains a level of accountability to every player on every team by serving as a built-in reminder that when you’re playing a sport at such a high speed and you’re permitted to carry a stick, you’re dealing with more than a whistle if you don’t respect the game and your opponents.
Talking heads and philosophical journalists scoff at the mention of hockey’s “code” and how it’s out of control and ridiculous that the NHL and other leagues don’t do something about it every time someone gets injured. Casual fans of the game will publicly state how silly it is that hockey allows fighting, yet they continue to watch and call their friends into the room when a fight breaks out. Even some retired players themselves have jumped into the action and gone on record to say they think something needs to be done, yet every campfire story they tell at the local watering hole starts off with, “I remember one night down in _______ …. We squared off and he hit me with a left right over my eye…” or something along those lines. Come on guys, leave it alone. If you’re that opinionated about it and it drives you crazy enough that it’s ruining hockey for you, just go and watch NetFlix, you've got lots of family friendly options there.
The bottom line for me, and this will make lots of people roll their eyes, is that as much of the culture of violence and fighting in hockey that stirs up all the conflict is the same culture that makes our game so unique. Hockey is a beautiful game and there is no one in the world that can argue against the skill, physicality, speed, precision and character that high level hockey exhibits. But the X factor and what makes this game so different and so fiercely addictive to those who love it is that at any point, this beautiful symbiosis of skill and speed can explode into an all-out battle. No other sport on earth allows it and no other sport on earth can match that combination in my opinion. As a result of this, and I’m not going to try and skirt this, injuries happen and will continue to happen. Trust me guys, if the players who have been dropping the gloves all these years and will continue to didn’t think it was worth the risk, they wouldn't do it.
I won’t sit here and tell you that every single fight in a hockey game is necessary or even really a good idea. Sometimes it’s stupid and sometimes pointless. But you have to step back and understand that with everything good and everything entertaining usually comes some backlash. If you want to maintain hockey’s edge and that element of physicality that is so unique, you have to accept that sometimes the pot bubbles over and makes a mess on your stovetop.
Every sport has its Achilles Heel. Small and larger debatable issues like concussions in football, fan riots in soccer, steroids in baseball and we’ll always strive to improve and be better in every area that we can be as fans and contributing members of each sport. But some sports need to be left alone and just enjoyed, because if they’re not and those pitchforking, torch carrying folks finally gather enough strength to produce some results, you might be left wondering what happened to that sport you used to love.
So I’ll leave it at that and continue to look forward to those moments in a hockey game when intensity bubbles over, one teammate steps up to defend another or set a precedent or two extremely tough hombres decide to scrap just because they feel like it. Those who agree with me will jump out of their seats and fill arenas with noise, YouTube fights at the office the next day and buy tickets the next time a “scrappy” opponent comes to town. Those who don’t agree will do the same, but then turn up their nose and poo-poo it from their Twitter and Facebook feeds after the adrenaline has died down.
I know I don’t represent every hockey player, coach or fan but I know the majority of them are with me in this fighting stance. If you try to take it out of professional hockey it should come as no surprise to you that we’ll drop our mitts and fight to keep it in.