By: Chad Lynch
On Friday night, 24 of the Coyotes top prospects from around the globe gathered at the Glendale Arena for the start of the 2005 Coyotes Rookie Camp. The camp, which will feature four days of practice sessions at the Arena, will conclude with a tournament in San Jose, California where rookie squads from Phoenix, Los Angeles, San Jose and Anaheim will compete in a head-to-head format.
While some viewFriday night's activities as merely a team introduction followed medical examinations, San Antonio Rampage (Phoenix's American Hockey League affiliate) Head Coach Pat Conacher saw it as much more.
"This is the first time that some of these kids are coming into a situation like this," said Conacher. "It gives us as coaches a chance to get to know the players and see what their maturity level off the ice is and how far they have to go to get to where they need to be."
For the players, it is more than just another chance to play hockey, it is an opportunity that could get them closer to playing in the National Hockey League, something none of these young players are taking lightly.
"I think your initial reaction going into a situation like this would be one of nervousness," said defenseman Logan Stevenson. "But for some of the guys like myself, who have gone through it before, it is a little easier.
"For some of the guys a camp like this is a big adjustment and knowing what is at stake can certainly have an effect on you," said Stevenson. "Yet, everyone knows that this is a team first and some of us who have gone through it can help the others out and make it a better camp and hopefully a successful tournament."
If you were to ask any of these rookies what they are most looking forward to over the next two weeks, you may be surprise that the first answer has nothing to do with skating at an NHL Arena or getting first-class treatment that comes with the NHL. What the players are looking forward to more than anything else is getting the chance to wear the Coyotes sweater and competing against current and future Pacific division rivals.
"The set-up for this tournament is great," said forward Randall Gellech. "In our team meeting we talked about the importance of playing division rivals and we know that a lot of the guys we face next week are going to be rivals of ours for years to come. This is just the first chance some of us have had to face them as a member of the Coyotes."
Even though the team will come before any individual success, there is no denying that amidst the teamwork there is a definite sense of internal competition.
"Playing as a team certainly comes first," said defenseman Matt Jones. "However, this is a very competitive group of guys here and we know it, the coaches know it and management knows it. By us feeding off that aspect of competition, it is going to bring out the best in our game and make our team that much stronger."
For some, like prospect Keith Ballard, the rookie camp is in many ways a true test of what will be expected upon reaching the NHL.
"It all starts with the schedule," said Ballard. "We know going into the tournament that we are going to play games on back-to-back days. We may get one day off after that, but we will spend it practicing and then get right back into back-to-back game situations. It gives you a little taste of what to expect.
"Add to that the fact that everything you do on the ice is being eval uated and studied. The coaches are looking for guys who will play as hard as they can every single shift and they want to know if you are a player that they can depend on to help them win. It is a very good way to prepare all of us for the next level."
Obviously, every player attending the Coyotes Rookie Camp is hoping to one day make it to the NHL, but how much impact can one camp really hold for these players?
"It has an enormous impact," said Conacher. "By a player having an impressive camp, it creates opportunity. We are never going to resist giving someone the chance to prove themselves at the next level when they are showing us they are ready. These next two weeks are a chance for the kids to try and show the coaching staff that they have the ability to play at that level and that they can sustain that level of play day after day. If they can do that, they are opening doors for themselves."
It may not be the NHL playoffs, but for every member of the Coyotes rookie squad this camp and up-coming tournament are just as important. Their dedication and commitment may only be outdone by their play on the ice, a fact that is good news for the Coyotes, and bad news for the rest of the Pacific division rookie rivals.