It may not have been the Kootenay Ice’s home opener, but the excitement inside Western Financial Place was palpable on Saturday night.
At the end of the second day of training camp, the team’s prospects squared off in their first intrasquad scrimmage and the young players were thrilled to show off their skills in a game situation.
The audience may have been mainly coaching staff members, parents and a handful of diehard fans, but there was an immediate urgency in the step of the competitors.
According to Kootenay head coach James Patrick, watching the game-situation was an opportunity he was looking forward to.
“Sometimes when you’re out running drills [at a practice] you’re more focused on [that], but in games I can really watch the players,” Patrick said the afternoon before the scrimmage. “There are a lot of players who are one way in practice and then they get in a game and can almost dominate.”
After a very intense first day, with strenuous fitness testing, day two included on-ice sessions for both goalies and players in the morning and Patrick saw an immediate improvement.
“The tempo and the execution were 50 percent better,” he said. “I thought both practices were really good. Yesterday, it was a little tough [with the] puck handling and you could see the nerves out there and maybe even some fatigue from the fitness test. Today, I thought they did really well.”
Joining the team again in the on-ice practices and the scrimmage was Kootenay Ice alumnus and current NHLer Adam Cracknell, who Patrick believes is a great role model for the WHL hopefuls.
“He’s an extremely hard worker [and has] earned everything he’s achieved in his NHL career from hard work and compete,” Patrick said. “So that message right there is fantastic. It’s [also] just fun for them to be on the ice with an NHL player and he’s constantly talking to them and giving tips.
“It’s helpful to us and it’s helpful to the players.”
Despite the team being named after him, Cracknell played against the white-jerseyed ‘Team Cracknell’ with the black-outfitted ‘Team Sinclair’.
The Dallas Stars forward, however, couldn’t push his side over the top as Sinclair ultimately fell in the two-period game to Cracknell by a score of 10-5.
Peyton Krebs was a difference-maker for the Cracknell squad, as he made several spectacular end-to-end rushes and precision passes, but it was 1999-born forward Evan Thomas who made the biggest impact on the scoresheet.
Thomas was credited with three goals, according to the Ice’s Twitter live feed. Fellow 99-born forward Sebastian Streu led the Sinclair side with a pair of goals.
Streu, who is of Canadian-German descent, played the 2016-17 season in Salzburg and was a member of the Germany U18 team at the Division 1 A World Junior Championships, earning five points in five games.
This summer’s second overall pick at the WHL Bantam Draft, Connor McClennon, also impressed in his first ever Kootenay camp game with a noticeably elite vision for the game.
Unfortunately, while his top-corner wrister from the circle in the first period showed off his reputed “pure goalscorer” label, a large hit in the second sent him off the ice before the game was over and he did not return.
All four goaltending prospects saw action during the game, each playing a period. Carter Woodside, a 2001-born keeper from Asquith, Saskatchewan allowed the fewest goals, with only two getting by him in a performance that included a penalty shot save.
Jesse Makaj, a 2001-born from North Vancouver, and Gage Alexander, a 2002-born from Okotoks, Alberta, both let in three goals. Will Gurski, a 2002-born from Duncan, BC, let in seven goals as he faced a relentless Cracknell offence in the second period.
Overall, the scrimmage was loaded with entertaining goals, physical play and big saves which gave the coaching staff and management plenty of information on their prospect pool.
While the many 15-year-olds in attendance at camp will not be eligible to play a full-season with the team this season, the clear goal for everyone else is to grab a roster spot.
Although it won’t be easy, 16-year-old Blake Allan said that he has the impression that anyone at the training camp could stick around if they can suitably impress the team’s brass.
“All the guys here are really good. They picked the players this year really well, so everyone has a chance,” Allan said. “You’ve just got to go out there and do your best.”
Training camp will continue on Sunday, with the returning players and imports arriving for their fitness testing at 1:30 p.m. and the prospects having their last day of on-ice sessions and scrimmages.