By Keith Lacey
Hockey is a game of numbers and there are many numbers Sudbury Wolves will be interested in when the 2002-03 training camp begins today.
For instance, this will be the largest training camp the Wolves have had in many years and by far the largest since Bert Templeton took over as coach and general manager four years ago.
A total of 54 players are expected to show up today for registration and fitness testing, including a whopping 17 returning players from last year.
After fitness testing today, players hit the ice bright and early Thursday morning for practice and then the first scrimmage session begins at 9:45. Afternoon practice begins at 2 pm with a scrimmage set for 3:15.
The same routine continues Friday. On Saturday, there?s a morning practice before the annual Blue and White game at 2 pm at the Sudbury Arena.
The exhibition season begins Monday in Rouyn, Que., with the first exhibition home game set for Friday, Sept. 7 against Owen Sound.
Of the 54 people in camp, 14 are first-year bantams and only three of them are allowed to remain in camp for 48 hours.
?This is the biggest camp I?ve had in a long, long time?since the expansion year in Barrie (in the early 1990s),? said Templeton. ?We?ve got 17 returning players and a lot of good other young players coming in, so it should make for a very competitive camp.?
Heading into camp, Templeton is very optimistic about his team. Last year at this time, he went into camp with only four returning players and a bunch of rookies.
He?s especially pleased with his returning defencemen, which includes talented veterans like Ryan Hastings, Dene Poulin, Jim Kehoe, J.F. Seguin and Travis Chapman. Former OHLers Jason Hicks and Rob Dmytruk, European import Miroslav Hvalaty and numerous rookies will all be battling for spots on the blue line.
Up front, Templeton said local products Bobby Chaumont, Zack Stortini and Trevor Blanchard will also be counted on heavily.
Returning sophomores Shandor Alphonso, Dan Speer, Brody Todd, Chris Robertson and European import Marko Kovacevic are strong bets to make the club.
First-round bantam draft pick Brett Connolly on defence and second-rounders Howie Martin and Craig Voakes at forward are almost sure to make the club as well.
Overage forward Rob Shilton, who was arguably last year?s best player before a severe knee injury ended his season, is also sure of a spot after his long rehabilitation went well over the past few months.
One player not returning is John Winstanley, who quit the team in the middle of last season, saying he didn?t feel he was physically ready for the OHL, despite putting up decent numbers through half a season.
Goaltender Mike Smith isn?t committed to playing anywhere right now, but has made it known he?d prefer to turn professional, said Templeton.
However, with Dallas holding his rights and having a glut of outstanding young goalies, Smith would be much smarter to return as an overager and play tons rather than languishing at the bottom rungs of the minor pros, said Templeton.
If Smith doesn?t return, sophomore Joel Whitmarsh will be his starter and he proved last year he?s a quality OHL puckstopper, said Templeton.
That leaves some 25 players vying for the final few roster spots.
Templeton said he gave every player a stringent off-season workout plan and said in today?s OHL if players come into camp out of shape, it shows immediately and they simply won?t play at this level.
With North Bay leaving the OHL and moving to another division in Saginaw, Mich., Templeton says the Wolves lose a longtime rival and four short road games a season.
However, he says the central division still provides some outstanding rivalries with Toronto, Mississauga, Brampton and Barrie all coming to town on a regular basis.
The OHL schedule is always tough on northern Ontario teams, but this year?s schedule won?t be nearly as difficult on the Wolves as it has been the past few years, he said.
Last year, the Wolves played three games in three nights or less on 10 different occasions and six times in a 10-week period.
This year?s club faces 11 different sets of three games in three nights or less, but they?re much more spread out with plenty of home dates in between most stretches, he said.
The Wolves have complained about long road stretches which can result in more injuries and lost school time, and it appears the league has finally listened, he said.
The Wolves have sold more than 2,000 season ticket packages and are hoping to sell many more before opening night Friday, Sept. 20 at the Sudbury Arena against Ottawa, said marketing manager Curtis Hall.
Training camp is open to the general public throughout the Labour Day long weekend.