Saturday, August 05, 2006

North Stars open camp with a bang

After just two training camp sessions on Friday, Traverse City North Stars head coach Scott Gardiner can already see a very bright season on the horizon.

The invitation-only camp - comprised of returning North Stars players, draft picks, tenders, free agents, and the best of the best from a summer’s worth of scouting, video review, and tryout camps – is a de facto proving ground for a team trying to build on a 19-win season in its inaugural campaign. With only 25 roster spots and 45 players in camp, it doesn’t take a mathematician to recognize the competitive dynamic at work in the Republic Rink at Centre ICE arena.

“What a start,” beamed Gardiner following Friday’s second on-ice session. “The talent and the skill here is unbelievable – and that’s just the first day. These guys still have some summer rust on their sticks and the nerves factor. I can’t wait to see the scrimmages.”

Veteran defenseman Richie Zobak, who took part in numerous Stars camps a year ago, noticed a very palpable difference 12 months later.

“After just one workout, I can tell,” said Zobak, a Chicago-area native who posted four goals and 15 assists in his rookie season. “It’s crisper, sharper. I think a lot of it has to do with the number of guys out here who have played in this league, who have competed at this level. It shows.”

The numbers support Zobak’s deduction. There are 15 players in camp who finished the 2005-06 season in the North American Hockey League, while two others - defenseman Harrison Niemann (Omaha) and Ray Kaunisto (Cedar Rapids) - plied their trade in the tier-I United States Hockey League. In all, 26 of the hopefuls ended last season in the junior ranks.

There is also a strong Montana flavor to the camp, as four players from defunct franchises have found their way to Centre ICE. Forward Matt Hughes (three goals, three assists in 28 GP)and defenseman Jameson Raymond (5G-5A in 44 games) helped lead Bozeman to the best record in the NAHL and a Robertson Cup Finals berth, while Travis Hamway amassed 17 goals and 35 assists over 51 games to lead Billings in scoring, while John Jacob chipped in with three points in 10 games for the Bulls. Gardiner says that everyone will get a long, hard look.

“It’s tough to say exactly what you’re looking for,” Gardiner explained. “But you can’t take too many of the same kinds of guys. You need a mix of sill, size, grit – and chemistry on and off the ice.”

Forward Mike Sand, who saw action in six games for Traverse City last year before a leg injury ended his season, says that everyone in camp is in the battle.

“It’s a lot more competitive, and there’s a lot more depth here right now,” he said. “And everybody has to make the team. There aren’t any free passes. We all have to go out there and go hard if we want to play here.”

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