SUGAR LAND, Texas - A player who impressed in his short time in Houston last season was Ryan Stokes. After a slow start to the season in ECHL Pensacola, the rookie came on strong and was looking to finish the season with the Aeros.
Stokes was plus-four through seven games without recording a point, but was playing solid defense and making good passes.
Then, April 2, against San Antonio, his season came to an end with a fractured orbital bone suffered in a 7-1 win over the Rampage at Toyota Center.
Anthony Stewart, a top Florida prospect, picked up a high-sticking penalty on the play and both players were given fighting majors. However, Stokes says it wasn’t really a high stick on Stewart, who surprised him instead with a punch.
"I lost my balance coming around the net and fell," Stokes said. "As I was coming to my feet, he already had the gloves off. He landed his second punch by the time I got to my feet and caught me in the eye. By the time I got my gloves off, they stopped the fight because I was bleeding."
Stokes himself isn’t afraid to drop the gloves. In 59 games with the Ice Pilots, he had 119 penalty minutes, including five fighting majors. His offensive production picked up throughout the season. He had 16 points total (1-15=16), but 15 in the final 44 games after notching just a single assist in his first 16 games.
Stokes had surgery soon after the injury and then went to work on his game.
With a personal trainer at his side, Stokes worked out Monday-Friday all summer, taking it to the ice once a week. Starting in August, he was out on the ice every day for two weeks.
"I trained hard, lifting weights to get stronger for the season," said the 6-foot-4 Stokes, who put on 15 pounds to get up to 210.
Stokes is trying to carry over the momentum from his first ever NHL camp. "Up there you have to move the puck quickly," Stokes said. "I had to adjust to the speed. You just have to keep playing well defensively in your own end."
Stokes’ "stay at home" defenseman style could become a factor in the "new" NHL and AHL. With offensive defensemen more able to step up into the action, those types of players will likely be paired with a defenseman who takes care of his own end.
"Hopefully I won’t get burned," Stokes said. "It gives you advantages as a D-man and it opens up the ice for passing."
Times are a changin’
There were several changes in Sugar Land this summer and they all didn’t have to do with the "Sugar Land Ice & Sports Center" sign and management at the former Aerodrome.
Players arrived in Sugar Land to find fresh paint in every corner of the upstairs portion of the team’s official practice facility. Also, color pictures of past teams and players adorn every wall.
According to equipment manager, Rick Bronwell, the painting alone took the better part of a month. Bronwell, trainer, Jerry Meins, and assistant equipment manager, Phil Shipp, aided in tearing up carpet and cleaning the place "from head to toe."
The stairs and hallway that lead from the locker room downstairs to the players lounge also got a fresh coat of paint with logos of the Aeros, the Wild and the American Hockey League.
Also, a Nestle’ cooler keeps ice cream treats cool and is refilled every Monday.
Joked Aeros general manager Tom Lynn: "We’d better be careful or we’ll have the fattest team in the league."
Kopriva’s "real" equipment almost here
One of the biggest questions at training camp this week has been goalie Miroslav Kopriva’s pads. The Wild/Aeros colors are red and green and Kopriva’s new white pads have orange and black trim.
"It’s a long story," Bronwell says. Kopriva arrived at the Wild’s rookie camp without any pads.
For rookie camp, Kopriva was fitted with a myriad of colors that earned him the "Christmas tree" nickname. The equipment was bought, essentially at a pro shop and was not customized to Kopriva.
Which brings us to the current pads. While awaiting arrival of his official pads ("soon" says Bronwell), the Aeros made a call to the supplier who had a spare set of orange and black pads belonging to Philadelphia goalie Antero Niittymaki. They were the size Kopriva needed.
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Tomorrow on www.aeros.com, check out a story on the Aeros’ youngest veteran. At just 23, Kurtis Foster is the youngest "old man" you’ll find. Also, we’ll preview this weekend’s pre-season games. That’s Friday on www.aeros.com.
Houston Aeros Training Camp Schedule
Friday, 9/30 - 10-11:30 a.m.
Saturday, 10/1 - 10-11 a.m. pre-game skate; 7 p.m. vs. San Antonio Rampage (pre-season) at Sugar Land Ice & Sports Center (Ticket information, Just more than 100 tickets are remaining!)
Sunday, 10/2 - 5 p.m., at San Antonio Rampage (pre-season) at the Ice Center at Northwoods