After falling to the New York Aviators in round one of last season’s Federal Hockey League playoffs by a single goal in a game five overtime situation, Whalers hockey has returned to the ice at the Danbury Ice Arena for the second annual free agent tryout camp.
The two day camp held Friday and Saturday was a chance for players with different skill levels and experience take to the ice and show what they are made of in hopes of getting a call back to the Whalers training camp.
“These opportunities are few and far between,” said returning Whaler Joe Dabkowski who participated in the weekend’s All-Star game. “For some of these guys this is their one shot. You’ve got two choices, either lay it all on the line or just kind of go through the motions, and if you really want it you kind of just have to go out there and hope for the best and hopefully your best is good enough.”
Newly appointed head coach Phil Esposito took the reins in running the tryout camp and was using the opportunity as a way of finding a few guys who could potentially compete amongst the handful of Whalers already signed on for next season.
“Espo[sito] is looking for guy who is going to stand out,” said Whalers veteran Marty Moucha who joined the rookies and some of his Danbury teammates on the ice during camp. “So if you’re not a great skater, but you go hard 30 seconds, hit, hit, go hard get a little scrap, crash the net, do the little things right, it just kind of adds up four, five, six, times in a row and you don’t [screw] up anything then it shows. You don’t get scored on and same thing with defense, you don’t make a stupid mistake, you’ve got to build your confidence level and take a step forward.”
Esposito was also looking for players with passion for the game. Conducting the camp, he was joined by a handful of Whalers including Moucha, Nick Niedert, Lynn Beedle, Devin Guy and Corey Fulton. The veterans took part in the drills and participated in the All-Star Game alongside the top rookie free agents.
“It’s always great to have some veterans out there on the ice,” said free agent Brendan Galley. “You see where you can improve in your own game and you can see because they’ve been there, they read the ice differently, they read the plays differently, and you can feed off that and kind of learn for yourself.”
Not only was it helpful to the free agents for the veterans to be working out with them, but it was also helpful for the coaches to gauge where the rookies stand in comparison.
“You look at guys like Marty Moucha,” said Niedert. “He doesn’t speak much he’s quiet, but he was out there working his ass off and that showed the rest of the guys that it’s a good stepping stone because Marty was one of the better players on our team … then you got to see how everybody adapted to that and you could see who could keep up and who couldn’t and that was a big thing with the veterans … you can definitely tell just everything passing, shooting, skating, just all that stuff you could tell how off some guys were.”
The two-day, grueling camp began with the majority of players testing the waters, but they soon learned that there wasn’t any time to be timid. The players were split into two teams, with the majority of players being forwards.
“Getting noticed as a forward definitely an issue,” said free agent defenseman Aaron Schwartz. “Camps like this they’re usually looking for the gritty players … I’m a defenseman, played defense the first day and forward the second day.
“Fighting always helps you get noticed, but when it gets down to it anybody can fight, finishing the checks, showing that you’re an aggressive player is definitely key in keeping a defensive minded style of hockey. Like I said, you go out here and you don’t back check and you score six goals, I don’t think that’s really going to help you out.”
Each workout ended with a team versus team scrimmage. At the end of the second day the first round of cuts were made and some players were asked to join the veterans in the All-Star game as a last showcase of their talent.
“I was happier with [tonight’s All-Star Game],” said Esposito. “I was upset [Saturday] afternoon because if anyone knows anything about hockey, when you’re first year out of college and you’re trying to make a pro team and stuff coming to a free agent camp you can’t play timid, you can’t play afraid, you’ve got to be able to show everybody that you’re willing to go through guys and take the body and play physical and stuff like that and it just wasn’t happening, so I got a little upset because everybody who knows me knows I played that way and that’s the way I am.”
The night’s game ended with the green team outscoring the white team 6-2, but the game wasn’t necessarily all about the end result on the scoreboard. The game was just another chance for the rookies to leave everything they have on the ice in hopes of getting a bid to training camp.