What a difference a year has made for the Fort Frances Lakers.
At this time last year, the team’s future in the SIJHL was in doubt as the Lakers were granted only a few days to cobble together a roster after the Fort Frances Jr. Sabres bit the dust.
Fast forward to this summer, when the team had the luxury of nearly 40 prospects and a handful of regulars showcase their skills at a summer camp held Friday to Sunday at Bronco Arena over in International Falls.
“It’s big for our organization,” enthused Lakers’ head coach Wayne Strachan.
“It gives us an advantage in seeing some players for the first time, and now knowing what they can offer to our hockey team and how they potentially fit in to our mold of how we’re going to build our team,” he reasoned.
Strachan recalled the differences in the team’s approach to last off-season compared to this one.
Entering the 2009-10 season, only two regulars with the Jr. Sabres—Colton Kennedy and Ryan Witherspoon—returned, and neither finished the year in Fort Frances.
As well, the uncertainty left no time to hold a summer camp.
This summer, the Lakers already have locked up leading scorer Tyler Stevenson (49 points last season) and SIJHL goalie-of-the-year Jameson Shortreed (a 4.55 goals against average and .895 save percentage during the regular season), as well as several other key cogs from last season.
“Last year, we had about a week to try and get as many kids into camp as we could,” Strachan recalled.
“Some of them weren’t at the Junior ‘A’ calibre,” he admitted.
“This year, it gives us a great chance to bring kids in, show them what our organization is all about [and] sell our program, and talk one-on-one with them,” Strachan noted.
“It goes a long way to the players and families who need to trust the coaching staff and organization that’s going to look after their 16- to 20-year-old son for the better part of the year,” he stressed.
Eighteen players from this weekend’s summer camp were invited to Lakers’ main camp when it begins Aug. 25.
But with a dozen players already signed, and the possibility of more to come in the next month, competition for roster spots should be running high when players take to the ice.
Strachan hopes the signees don’t rest on their laurels, however, as a poor camp and strong showing from a non-roster player could spell disaster for them.
“The ones that are invited back to main camp would really have to beat one of our signees out for a spot, and that’s also possible,” he explained.
“We’re looking to upgrade in whatever aspect we can.
“We obviously want to improve over last year’s performance and definitely build on our success we had in the playoffs,” Strachan added.
“The only way to do that is to improve in personnel and to find the right mix of guys that are going to play for each other.”
Strachan singled out defencemen Marty McFadden, Jordan Krebsbach, Ty Brueggeman, and Christian Belobaba, along with forward Dan Chesser, as players who were particularly impressive over the weekend and were invited back to main camp.
“It was good to see three, four defencemen that we wanted to take a look and . . . about eight forwards that we wanted to look at, and a few young prospects that we’ll want to look at in the future,” he enthused.
“He’s a gifted player that has a lot of skill and speed,” Strachan said of Chesser.
“He’ll definitely get a good look in main camp.”
Other players who will attend main camp include goalies Tyler Ampe and Neill Kelly; defencemen Jamie Kaun, Chris Cousineau, Ryan Windigo, and Brandon Sinclair; and forwards Jeff Burke, Nick Jourdain, Davis Smith, Zach McCool, Brett McMahon, Blake Wepruk, and Brendan Cawston.
Strachan also noted some of the blueliners could be plugged in up front at main camp.
Strachan did admit he was underwhelmed by the performance of some of the local players who attended the camp, but hoped those who will be given a second chance at main camp will take advantage to better prepare themselves for the opportunity over the next month.
“I hope they [local players] got a little bit of a wake-up call in their conditioning because it needs to get much better in the little over a month that they’ll have to prepare for main camp,” he warned.
Strachan said he’d like to see a significant contingent of locals take the ice for the Lakers this season, but won’t keep a local player if an impressive out-of-towner is more deserving.
“We want as many local kids as we can,” he pledged. “On the other hand, it’s hard to sign them and get them in the right frame of mind if they’re not willing to step up to the competitiveness and what it takes character-wise to be a Junior ‘A’ hockey player.
“That’s my concern with a lot of the local kids that were out there,” he noted. “They don’t understand what it takes to play at this level.
“It’s a big step from whatever league they played in last.”
Strachan also hopes that without all of the off-ice distractions that plagued the team in the early parts of last season, the Lakers will be able to hit the ground running entering their second season in the SIJHL.
That means icing a lineup that’s game-ready from Day 1, regardless of who the players are and where they hail from.
“We don’t have a half-a-year to wait for them and get them to adjust to the speed of the league, the strength of the league,” Strachan stressed.
“It’s going to be a task for some of them to make the team.
“I hope that we have three or four new local guys, but it’s going to be what they do in the next month to help themselves that will definitely prepare them for main camp,” he remarked.
A handful of locals did turn some heads over the weekend, including 15-year-olds Jordan Larson, Colton Spicer, Jared Wiebe, and Brett Jefferies.
“I didn’t know what to expect from them, how they would react to playing with the older guys,” Strachan said.
“They all put in a good showing and they definitely weren’t out of place,” he added. “They all contributed to the team that they were on.”
There also were a handful of players who are set to return to the Lakers this season, including assistant captain Blake Boaz, Cody Hasbargen, Jaret Leclair, and Mike Jourdain.
“It was good to see Blake Boaz out there and some of other vets that realized that it was just a summer prospect camp, [but] they came in and needed to skate or wanted to skate,” Strachan noted.
“I hope that they continue to build off that and are ready for main camp.”
Boaz, Jourdain, and Leclair all were players who re-signed with the team in recent days.
Forwards Jon Sinclair and Tyler Stevenson, along with defencemen Cody McCool and Morgan McNeill, have put pen to paper, as well.