Leafs vets happy to return to Nelson ice

Ten players from last year's squad attended the weekend training camp.

Some of last year's Leafs as well as this year's hopefuls were on the ice last weekend trying out for the team.

Levi Hulston has had enough golf for one summer.

The Nelson Leafs forward was eager to get back on the ice after spending the off-season working at a Calgary course. Cutting grass, it turns out, isn’t as much fun as breaking in a pair of skates.

“It’s unreal,” said Hulston. “Couldn’t be happier.”

Hulston is one of several Leafs veterans who took part in the team’s weekend training camp. Defenceman Kyle Chernenkoff, who was sporting a pink torso from dryland exercises during a hot Saturday afternoon, came to camp excited by the organization’s off-season moves.

“I think they did a great job,” said Chernenkoff. “Obviously we didn’t finish the season off last year as strong as we wanted to. They had to do what they had to do and I think we’re going to be ready to rock this coming season.”

Ten regulars from last year’s squad were on the ice for the camp, although how many of those players stick around remains to be seen. Several plan on trying out for Junior A teams, while head coach Mario DiBella warned simply returning to the team camp wouldn’t guarantee a roster spot.

The competition for spots felt different to Hulston and Chernenkoff, who praised the fast pace on the ice.

“Especially because these guys are all hand selected,” said Chernenkoff. “It makes a huge difference when the coaches want them to be here and they’re all flying. They know they’re fighting for a spot on this team.”

Hulston couldn’t help but notice how much younger this year’s camp is than it was this time last year. Seven of the 40 invitees were born in 2000. “You can see there’s a lot more cages, but I think they’re junior-ready,” said Hulston. “They’re a lot better than some of the guys we had last year. I think we just had some camp fillers last year, but they really selected the camp this year.”

Whoever makes the final cut will need to give the Leafs a better offensive punch than they had last year. Goals were often at a premium despite Nelson’s ability to outshoot opponents.

“We’ve got to put some numbers up,” said Chernenkoff. “Last year we struggled to find the back of the net a little bit, which is normal at the beginning, but we just never really found that groove. So we need some goal scorers, and then it’s just going to come down to heart.”

Heart and perhaps better team chemistry. Players interviewed each brought up the locker-room atmosphere as an issue last season, which featured a mid-season coaching change and a revolving door of teammates either traded or released outright.

Sam Weber, who is entering his fourth season with the Leafs and his final in junior hockey, said he was looking forward to a drama-free environment.

“I think last year things were just shaky and uptight from too much distraction from everything else that was going on,” said the forward. “This year I think we don’t really need to focus on that as much and just play our game. We all know what we have to do out there.”

Forward Andy Fitzpatrick, for his part, wants to see less cliques in the locker-room.

“Last year I know there was a bit of separation between some of the older guys and the young guns,” said Fitzpatrick. “Obviously we can all control that so it’s what we’re going to do this year, just make sure everybody feels a part of the team. We can all hang out together. It’ll translate onto the ice that we’re all buddies and be looking like a team hopefully soon.”

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