JULY 27, 2015

There is no mistaking when a coach believes in his team, especially after seeing the vision of a season’s work behind-the-scenes come together. Each stride, though remaining brisk, seems lighter, each grin and laugh seems fuller, and the light emanating from his office has a fresher glow.
Considering how well this year’s main camp turned out, it’s hard for the IceRays’ headman not to be a bit happy.

“Everything from the way that it was run in regards to having it in Sugar Land was really good,” said Head Coach John Becanic. “It’s the first time doing it there, so you don’t really know how it was going to unfold, but it was really good. I was really proud of how all the staff made it work. We had so much staff there, and everyone made it work. To date, it was our most successful camp from a professional standpoint and certainly picking our team.”

The 2015 IceRays Main Camp concluded just over a week ago at the Sugar Land Ice & Sports Center right around three hours from the team’s home at the American Bank Center, and over 80 participants took to the ice over the process. The five-day camp is unconventional for North American Hockey League (NAHL) teams with most camps only lasting either one weekend consisting of four scrimmages and an all-star game.

Becanic’s method, debuted in last season’s main camp, adds an additional two days prior to the final scrimmage consisting of videos, practices, and scrimmages where players who have a better shot of making the final roster are taught general concepts and habits as well as sit down with the coaching staff to discuss expectations and potential roles for the last few days as well as the upcoming year.

Each pre-scripted element is utilized in the best interest of tabulating a final roster and weeding out competition to form a better evaluation of each potential IceRay. The process also gives the participants a chance to know where they stand.

“We give the players every opportunity to be the best they can be and know directly what they need to do. What we don’t want is a kid saying, ‘Well coach, if you would’ve told me, I could’ve done that.’ We tell them so there’s no ‘Well, I didn’t know that.’ It’s a long camp, and it’s not easy.”

While the camp itself has been touted as one of the best since the IceRays became a junior franchise in 2010, it did not come without some new types of challenges, including heat and humidity of a hot Texas summer affecting both the ice surface and outside conditions, transporting players to and from multiple airports in Houston, and adjusting to a new venue altogether from past camps in Michigan and Dallas. The venue was the practice facility of the former Houston Aeros of the American Hockey League (AHL) and is now home to the Sugar Land Imperials, a tier-III junior hockey team in the NA3HL coming off its first year of existence.

In addition to the IceRays staff, Becanic notes the assistance of the Imperials staff in attributing to the camp’s success.

“The Sugar Land Imperials staff, especially [Director of Community Relations/Billet Coordinator] Carrie Gould, was outstanding—I made her camp MVP. What they did for us to make it work and the hotels. Everything was good.”

On the ice, there were three strong takeaways. The first was depth, and more importantly in goal, where Becanic admitted a big point of emphasis heading into the off-season. One day before the 2015 NAHL Draft, the IceRays sent primary netminder Andrew Lindgren to Fairbanks for one final tender and left open the door for competition in the back end. The first pick of the draft came in American-born goalie Graham Hunt, and the second move saw a trade with the Springfield Jr. Blues that brought in their primary goaltender Dryden McKay.

It appears the team has found their tandem in net.

“You can’t win in this league without two good goalies,” Becanic explained. “I don’t care who you are. Every team that makes the final four, even the final eight, had two good goalies. I didn’t feel comfortable with just one, and I didn’t feel comfortable with none. I thought we needed two. You’re one injury or bad spell away from having to rely on the other guy.”

The second comes away from the sights of the public: chemistry. In one of the hardest topics to evaluate, coaches and scouts have to meld together both a strong core of talent with a specific type of player that can be developed within the system and meshes well with other skaters. It’s rare that a team can find the right combination of talent and character heading into a season, but not impossible.

“The thing I like most about this group, and in a lot of years of coaching, is the character and who our guys are as people. I think it’s one of the best groups I’ve ever been part of. I really believe that. I just think some really good young men that you want representing the organization. I’m really excited about that. That allows for all kinds of growth, development and chemistry.”

The third and final is the roster itself. While the team will officially release their roster just as training camp opens at the end of the summer, indications from Becanic point to a potentially deep front core to compliment a strong back end thanks to a few surprising additions to compliment an impactful core of returning skaters and a skilled mix of draft picks and tenders. Some household names will return for the 2015-16 season, and the list shows promise of excitement for fans for player contributions and overall team performance.

However, it’s worth nothing that despite the allotted 25 roster spots per NAHL rules, the IceRays will only carry 22 players heading into training camp, which is one player short of the mandated roster cap in October. A few moving parts and results from camp are the culprits for the unconventional decision by the Head Coach.

“We only took 22 players because we felt there were only 22 worthy of coming to Corpus Christi. That being said, we have seven guys that are in the USHL right now. We can get zero of the seven, we can get all seven, or we can get somewhere in-between, and that’s obviously why we only took 22 because of the potential of adding to our roster that way.”

So, how does the team stand heading into training camp?

Considering the IceRays won’t drop a puck on the American Bank Center ice surface until after September 1, there is still plenty of time for multiple changes to rosters and evaluations at the upcoming training camp just before the season commences in addition to knowing what core other NAHL and South Division teams have developed in the past few months. Expectations for this group of players appear higher than in past seasons keeping in mind an arduous South Division schedule approaches in the NAHL’s toughest division.

It’s a process the veteran head coach knows all too well. While his words are chosen carefully, his optimism shines behind his reservation.

“People ask me, and I always say we’re not as bad as the first year,” chuckled Becanic. “It’s hard to compare year-to-year because what you remember is your guys at the end of the year, not where the guys were at training camp. Where Mason Krueger is today as opposed to where he was at training camp a year ago is not even close … But you’re comparing him to where he was last year going into the playoffs, where he was pretty good for us. It’s really hard to remember.

“I’m cautiously optimistic because every time you think, ‘Jeez, we’re really good,’ you’re not as good as you are. So I’m going to go in the opposite way this year and think, ‘I think we’re pretty solid.’”

Collin Schuck is the Director of Broadcasting & Media Relations for the Corpus Christi IceRays. He can be contacted at or on Twitter at @CollinDSchuck.