By the time games that count roll around three weeks from now the goals and the pressure will be a lot different for the Spokane Chiefs.
They expect – and are expected – to win most of their games.
But on Thursday, when the Western Hockey League team opened camp at the Arena, the pressure was quite different – and different for each player.
For the scores of young hopefuls it’s quite simple – earn one of the few spots available.
The veterans know it’s their turn to step up, not only to contribute more to the continued success of recent years but to hold off the hungry young lions who want their spot.
And in-between the battles on ice there is the expectation for the older players to show the younger players the ropes.
Veteran defenseman Stefan Ulmer has a good handle on the four-day camp that culminates Sunday with the Red-White game at 1 p.m.
“The last two years we’ve been the best defensive team,” he said. “We have to keep up the tradition. We have a good D squad. We know we can do it. The pressure is on us … to be the best defensive team in the league again.”
But even though the defense is proven, the blue-liners can’t rest on their laurels.
“We have to be aware we have the young kids coming,” Ulmer said. “If you want a position you have to battle for it. Camp is for them and us. We have to be better than them or they’re going to take our spots.”
At the same time, Ulmer plans to do everything he can for the young pups nipping at his heels.
“My first year I was on the squad I battled for the sixth D,” he said. “I know how hard it is. They told me to battle every day. You need a good mentor. I try to be that for the young guys. I hope I can help them.”
There isn’t much advertised room on the Chiefs’ defense with virtually all of last year’s players back.
“There’s a lot of pressure because you’re trying to make a team that doesn’t have many spots instead of a team that has more spots,” said 17-year old defenseman Landon Oslanski, a third-round pick in the 2007 Bantam Draft. “But it’s a good team to come to. You’ve got to make the best of what you’ve got … play your hockey game.
“The only way you can make it is by beating one of the vets and showing you want it more. I prepared all summer for this week.”
Oslanski, an “offensive defenseman,” was put in the same team – Team Cote – that will scrimmage twice a day through Saturday against Team Sawyer and Team Whitfield with a pair of other highly-regarded young defensemen in Garrett Leedahl, 18, and Tanner Mort, 16.
“I think I’m ready to play here,” Leedahl, an ’06 sixth-round pick, said. “I learned a lot from my season in Junior A. I think I’m ready to take a step to the next level now. … I just have to stick with my game, make good passes, be physical, be a solid D-man.”
Mort (Post Falls), a fourth-rounder in last year’s draft, said, “I have to stay focused, work hard. I know I can play here. I’ve got to be firing on all cylinders. I have to stand out and be better than the veterans.”
There is more room for rookies up front with three or four openings.
“It gives me a little more confidence knowing there are a few spots are open,” center Brady Brassert, 16, who was last year’s second-round pick. “It’s always nice to see there is a chance to make your spot, to work for. But there are still lots of kids and everybody’s got a fair shot. It should be fun.”
The Spokane coaching staff is looking for players who can score.
“Since I was young that’s the guy I’ve always wanted to be,” Brassert said.
That’s also a role 16-year old center Michael Aviani, a fifth-round pick in ’08, hopes to fill.
“I feel like I can put the puck in the net for sure,” he said. “I’m pretty confident out here, I have one year of experience.”
He said the nerves are a welcome part of the challenge.
“You’re always a little bit jittery,” he said. “When you play hockey, every time at the rink you feel that, that excitement, that nervousness. But mostly it’s excitement.
“I’ve got to prove I’m willing to do the greasy stuff, go to the net, work hard every shift, be as much of a two-way player as I can.”
Right-winger Mitch Holmberg, last year’s top draft pick, also sees himself in the role of sniper, which doesn’t necessarily mean the pressure is on.
“Yes and no,” he said. “I just have to work as hard as I can, not really worry about putting it in the net. When opportunities come just put it in, otherwise you’ve got to focus and play the role the coach gives you, in the defensive end, too.”
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