There are still 24 days until the North American 3 Hockey League’s regular season is scheduled to start.
The Rochester Grizzlies have gotten a jump-start on the rest of the league, though.
They’ve been on the ice for more than a week.
Grizzlies coaches Chris Ratzloff, Mike Aikens and Austin Balko left the team’s tryout camp in late August with a list of approximately 30 players who returned to Rochester eight days ago to begin the team’s quest for a second consecutive NA3HL Central Division title.
Why the quick turnaround from tryout camp to fall training camp?
Many of those 30 players are not only brand new to the Grizzlies, they’re also brand new to junior hockey.
“We have eight or 10 veterans and everyone else … we have 20 newcomers,” said Ratzloff, who is entering his second season as the Grizzlies’ head coach. “They’re all new to junior hockey. Last year we had some new guys come from different junior organizations because they just wanted something different.”
That inexperience at the junior level isn’t allowed to be used as an excuse in the Grizzlies’ locker room, though. There are close to a dozen veterans who were part of last year’s division title team who didn’t get a chance to chase a postseason championship, as the coronavirus pandemic wiped out the NA3HL playoffs.
“It’s really nice; we’re one of the only programs who are on the ice skating already. I feel like we’re a step ahead of everyone else,” said Grizzlies’ second-year defenseman Ethan Noonan, who played in 44 games last season. “I think by the time we get to our exhibition games we’re going to be ready to jump right into it. Right now … we’re not there yet, but we’re working together the best we can and just want to replicate what we did last year.”
The first week of practice was spent doing a lot of skill work and allowing players to get comfortable being back on the ice on a daily basis for the first time in nearly six months. This week, the Grizzlies’ staff expects to implement its systems and start looking for potential line combinations and defensive pairings.
“Every team I’ve coached, no matter the level -- PeeWees, Bantams, whatever -- I always try to let them show me who they want to play with first and see how that works out,” Ratzloff said about building his team’s lines. “There are a lot of times where they know better than we do. They’ll have natural chemistry with guys that develops. We’ll see who looks good together and then try to mix things up when we need to.
“One of the nice things about having a full month before we start playing for keeps is it gives us a chance to see how things go.”
Second-year Grizzly Luke McKinch -- who, along with Noonan, are the only two defensemen back for the team from last season -- said the veteran players have already taken on a leadership role in practices and in the locker room.
“It’s definitely easier to walk into this situation (as a vet) than coming in as a rookie,” he said. “You have a little more responsibility. We have eight new rookies on defense. Being able to help them, to know the answers to their questions … it’s good to be able to reinforce what they’re learning.”
One position to watch early this season is in goal, where last year’s NA3HL Goalie of the Year, Mathias Backstrom, is gone. He’ll play college hockey at Nichols College in Massachusetts. But there are two capable goalies vying for the starting job. Second-year Grizzly Shane Soderwall appears to be the favorite to be the No. 1 starter, while Owatonna High School grad and NA3HL rookie Zach Wiese backs him up.
Soderwall was excellent when he got opportunities to take the net last season, but those chances became more and more scarce as Backstrom took control of the job in the second half of the season. Soderwall went 11-1-1 with a 1.76 goals-against average and a .920 save percentage while sharing the net with Backstrom and Sean Guerin.
“Shane can step in and be that guy for us,” Ratzloff said. “It was tough for him last year, but he did all the right things in practice and was very coachable. I know he wasn’t happy at times, but he’s earned the right to have that spot now.”