KENNEWICK — Players were checking in for the Tri-City Americans training camp on Wednesday, Aug. 31. There were familiar faces, and fresh faces that were making their first appearance in Kennewick.
No matter the name or experience, General Manager Bob Tory said positions are up for grabs after the team finished 19-43 last season and missed the playoffs.
“Any time you miss the playoffs, players should be excited to get back,” Tory said. “We lost our way a little bit. It’s imperative the players take responsibility and bring the program back to where it belongs.”
Training camp opened at 9 a.m. Thursday and runs through Sunday. Rookies will have the ice Thursday at 9 a.m. and 10:30 a.m., followed by evening sessions at 5 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. There will be a goalie session at 4 p.m.
Friday, Saturday and Sunday will have rookies and veterans together in the morning, with scrimmages in the evening.
The annual Blue-White game is at 9 a.m. Monday.
The Americans return 14 players from last year’s team, along with veteran Reese Belton, who was acquired during the offseason from the Kamloops Blazers.
“We were young last year,” Tory said. “We are an older team and we should be a better hockey club. It’s up to the players to make sure they do the things they need to do. We need all 20 guys contributing. Everyone contributes in different ways.”
Among the returning players are this year’s team captain Marc Lajoie and forward Parker Bell, the team’s leading returning scorer from last year (18g, 31a, 49 points).
“We were so young the last couple of years,” said Lajoie, a 6-5, 220-pound defenseman. “We gained experience, and the core group is done with losing. We are ready to get after it. We want to have a tradition of success where you compete for championships. Our goal is to make the playoffs and make a push after that.”
Bell, a fifth-round pick (155th overall) of the Calgary Flames in the 2022 NHL Draft, is 6-4, 200-pound forward who is known for his work ethic and determination around the net. He led the team with 31 assists last season.
“I feel like everyone is a year older and more experienced,” he said. “Us older guys have to lead the way in that category. There are a couple of young talents here. They have to take the next step and lead in their own way.”
One area the Americans know they need to work on is getting the puck to the net. Last year, they ranked 20th in the Western Hockey League in goals scored with 179. Only Prince George (177) and Medicine Hat (154) had less.
“Last year, we needed to score more,” Bell said. “I think it’s my job, and a couple of others, to step up and score more.”
Scoring is one thing Tory wants to see improve, along with others.
“We can’t have our power play and penalty kill in the bottom half of the league,” he said. “Our goaltending was good, but we have to defend better. We can’t give up 40 shots a game.”
Bell got a look at a few of the new recruits as they filed past the Americans main office to check in for camp.
“It doesn’t feel like it was that long ago for me,” he said. “Training camp is a lot of fun. It’s nice to get back and see the guys, and what new guys we have.”
While the veterans embrace training camp, the younger players in Kennewick for the first time have plenty of jitters.
“It’s exciting and intimidating and scary for the young kids,” Americans coach Stu Barnes said. “We have a good opportunity to get them on the ice on their own, and it’s on the shoulders of the older guys to make them feel comfortable. They were all in this situation at one point.”
Among the rookies in camp are four local players — Vincent Rodriguez of West Richland, Keegan Stickel of Moses Lake, Dominic Deery of Richland and Connor Ellingsen of Kennewick.
The Americans have six goaltenders in camp, including Tomas Suchanek and Nick Avakyan, who were with the team last year.
Suchanek played for Czechia at the World Junior Championship in August, leading his team to the semifinals, where it lost to Canada. Czechia beat the United States 4-2 in the quarterfinals.
“Tomas got a ton of experience last year, as did Nick,” Barnes said. “That tournament helped Tomas, and it was a good experience. When you are a young goalie, you look around and see how things are done.”
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