About 30 hopefuls along with some returning players hit the ice at Port Colborne’s Vale Centre Saturday for a joint prospect camp held by the Niagara Predators and the St. George Ravens.
Robert Turnbull, owner and president of both Greater Metro Junior A Hockey League (GMHL) teams, was pleasantly surprised with the turnout.
“We wanted to cut it off at 30, but we ended up with 37 players,” Turnbull says from his Pickering-area home. “I couldn’t say no to our returning players who wanted to come. We had kids from all over — Wisconsin, Florida, Calgary. It was great.”
With the GMHL entry draft scheduled for this Sunday afternoon, it was an opportunity for Predators coach Kevin Taylor and Ravens coach Wade Clubb, both just recently hired by Turnbull, to get their first live looks at some potential new players.
“This was strictly a skills evaluation camp,” Turnbull explains. “Knowing we have to draft Sunday, we were looking for some younger players (ages 15 to 17) down the road that we can draft, as well as perhaps a couple of players that can make the team right away. We saw two or three players that could make both teams right now.”
The two coaches ran a high-tempo practice in an effort to evaluate their prospects’ skating, passing and stick-handling skills. Turnbull credits Andrew Ferlatte, vice-president of both teams, for putting together a good program for the on-ice session.
Taylor, who was hired as Niagara’s head coach in April, was excited to take to the ice with some potential Predators.
“There was a lot of talent out there,” Taylor says. “Some of them were really young, but there is a future for them if they want to come out.”
Of the players who turned up, Taylor says some were committed to the Predators, while others were hoping for a spot on the St. George squad. For the others, Taylor and Clubb had a chance for a first evaluation and to approach skaters each was interested in.
“It’s really beneficial to the players,” Taylor says. “We’re going to get players no matter what, from a coach’s perspective. But from a player’s perspective, when you get two teams looking at you, you can choose which team you might want to go to based on location or what the coach tells you.”
The presence of experienced Predators from last year’s team, such as Reese Bisci, Dawson Walker and Logan Baillie, was a bonus for Taylor. Having been hired after Niagara had been eliminated from the Russell Cup playoffs, he has yet to get a feel for the skills of those players who are returning.
“The only difficult thing I found is that not knowing everyone who is returning, I don’t know how (the new prospects) will fit in,” Taylor explains. “I talked to a couple of kids here, and to some of the kids from my area (Bowmanville), but I told Andrew I’m just going to focus on coaching and let them make the player decisions. Andrew and Rob know what the team’s needs are moving forward.”
Clubb and Taylor split the 90-minute session in half, with the Ravens coach focusing on skills drills for the first half of the camp. For the second half, Taylor focused on competitive drills, running the prospects through 3-on-2, 2-on-1 and 1-on-1 situations before moving into scrimmages.
Taylor admits he wasn’t fully pleased with the condition of the Vale Centre ice for the practice. A local Junior B team had skated on the pad prior to the prospect camp and Taylor felt it was too warm.
“From a coaching perspective,” he adds about that arena’s layout, “most of the fans are behind you, and you can’t see the fans in the stands. It’s hard to get excited. As much as you don’t interact directly with the fans, you actually kind of do. And the players come in through the back door. There’s less excitement there.”
Taylor expects that Ferlatte will organize another prospect camp some time in mid-June.
Turnbull, meanwhile, adds that he hopes to run a few more skate sessions this summer in preparation for the 2022-2023 GMHL season. It will give both teams a chance to evaluate additional players post-draft.
“We’re getting a lot of interest from players coming out of Buffalo, local players too,” Turnbull says. “The Ravens have begun to look at players from the St. George AAA program, and we know we have some boys in the Niagara AAA that can make the Predators.”
As well, Turnbull reminds The Local that there are still a number of European players that are interested in coming over. But he expects the Predators will have a much different look than when they arrived in Niagara-on-the-Lake last
“There will be some Europeans on both teams,” Turnbull says. “My personal preference, though, is to work toward more local talent. I’m not going to tell the coaches what to do, but that’s kind of the way I want to go.”