Ice prospects hungry to prove themselves

With roster set, young guns hoping to earn regular ice time.

Cracking the Ice roster is a dream come true for defenceman Matthew Thomas.

However, until recently, that dream wasn’t in reach for the 17-year-old.

Thomas, who came to training camp from Calgary, was an unlisted and undrafted player, who got a personal invite from Kootenay Ice head scout Garnet Kazuik.

Thomas spent last season playing with the Calgary Royals Midget AAA team in the  Alberta Midget Hockey League, tallying eight assists in 34 games.

He’s had relationships with other WHL teams, attending camp with the Chilliwack Bruins two years ago, and making an appearance with the Everett Silvertips at camp last year, but ended up sticking with the Ice this season.

And he couldn’t be happier.

“Right now it’s almost hard to believe,” said Thomas. “I wasn’t expecting it all summer or anything, so I’m still getting used to it and still wrapping my head around the fact that I’ll be here all year.

“But it’s a great feeling and I’m excited for the year.”

Though Thomas wasn’t drafted, he came across the Ice’s radar via Kazuik, who runs an early morning program that the young defence man attended before school.

Kazuik seemed to notice, and began talking with him about taking a shot with the Ice, Thomas said.

“Around the end of the hockey season [last year], he asked me if I wanted to come to camp,” Thomas said. “…I thought I may as well come and give it a shot and see what happens.”

Thomas is joined by goaltender Wyatt Hoflin, defenceman Tanner Faith and forwards Collin Shirley, Luke Philp, and Kyle O’Connor as the new rookies on the team.

Adjusting to the WHL level of play has been the main challenge for Thomas, who said he’s getting more and more acclimatized with every practice.

“The speed is probably the biggest thing I’ve noticed, and the pace of the game, how much less time you have as a defenceman to make a decision, to make a pass or where to pass it,” Thomas said.

Also hailing from Calgary is O’Connor, who managed to earn a spot as a 16-year-old after beating out the competition in training camp and the exhibition season.

O’Connor was a fourth round selection by the Ice in the 2011 WHL Bantam Draft,

After getting drafted, O’Connor said he spent all last hockey season and the summer preparing for a shot at making the Ice roster this year.

“I did fitness testing every month to come in ready for camp,” said O’Connor. “Registered for school mid-year and I could feel that they had some decent interest in me.”

Now that the roster is set, he can breathe a sigh of relief.

“It feels really good, all my hard work over the summer has paid off,” O’Connor continued. “It feels really great. I’ve always wanted to play in the WHL, now I just have to prove that I belong here.”

O’Connor got his first taste of regular season action in the opening game on the road in Edmonton, and he wants to use his speed and shot to contribute to the Ice’s offence.

“I think this will be a big development year for me and I’ll do the best I can to get as much ice and contribute offensively and defensively as best I can,” O’Connor said.

Shirley is the other 16-year-old rookie, while Faith, Philp, Thomas and Hoflin are 17.

Shirley is the first round selection from the 2011 draft, while Philp was late cut from last year’s team. Hoflin was the lone goaltending prospect who stuck alongside veteran Mackenzie Skapski after training camp.

Faith cracked the roster after going through camp injury-free—he got hurt last year during his first attempt and was injured again while called up halfway through the season.

The prospects complement a team of 15 returning veterans and Jakub Prochazka, who comes to the Ice from the Czech Republic via the CHL Import Draft.