By Travis Betts
The Bridgeport Sound Tigers opened their 2012 Training Camp on Friday morning at Islanders Iceworks in Syosset. Players gathered for the first time as a unit, taking medical exams and shaking hands with new teammates. First-year Head Coach Scott Pellerin the reigns of a team that won the Northeast Division in 2011-12, and is equipped with enough talent to repeat.
The 2012-13 version will feature many carryovers from last season’s team, but also plenty of new faces. For Brock Nelson, Kirill Kabanov, Johan Sundstrom and five other rookies, their North American professional hockey careers begin with this year’s Sound Tigers Training Camp.
This year marks Nelson’s first professional camp after playing the last two seasons at the University of North Dakota. Nelson appeared in six regular season and playoff games for the Sound Tigers last spring after concluding his collegiate season. That experience should benefit him as he tries to make an impact in his first year in the AHL.
“It was good to get out there and get a taste for the pro game, get used to the pace and meet some of the guys,” Nelson said. “Now I want to prove that I had a good summer and develop as a player mentally, physically and work on all aspects of my game.”
Nelson added that while young players can take many different routes to get to the pro ranks, playing in the WCHA was the best path for him.
“College was definitely a great decision for me,” Nelson said. “I think the coaching staff at North Dakota was the best of anywhere. There’s a lot of great players that come out of college. The level of competition in the WCHA is very high, with teams like Minnesota, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Denver. The style of play is fast. There’s slight differences from there to the AHL, so hopefully I transition well.”
Kabanov played Canadian junior hockey, the more “traditional” route to pro hockey, although his path had its twists and turns. After moving from Moscow in 2009 to play for the Moncton Wildcats of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, he was traded one season later to the Lewiston MAINEiacs, who then folded after the 2010-11 season. In 2011-12, he suited up for the Shawinigan Cataractes, who won the Memorial Cup, the Canadian Hockey League’s biggest prize. At the beginning of his first Sound Tigers camp on Friday, he had one goal in mind.
“I just want to try to make the roster and try to help the guys win every game and do my job on and off the ice,” Kabanov said. “I’m expecting a lot of myself in the pros.”
Kabanov says he wouldn’t be the player he is today without his unique past. Through the ups and downs of playing on four teams in as many years (including a brief stint with the KHL’s Moscow Spartak in 2008-09), Kabanov improved his play each season and matured off the ice.
I want to earn a jersey here and earn a nice role. Center is my natural position, but I don’t care where I play. - Sound Tigers forward Johan Sundstrom
“I really liked it there (in Lewiston), but I went to the team that won the Memorial Cup this year in Shawinigan, and it was real exciting,” Kabanov said. “It was a great opportunity. I got tired of moving, but I liked the cities I got to play in and I learned something everywhere I went. This year, I want to try to make the big club when everything gets worked out, but in the meantime, do what I can to help the Sound Tigers.”
Sundstrom has taken yet another path to his first camp with the Sound Tigers. After two full seasons in the Swedish Elite League, the Islanders second round pick in 2011 is determined to play full-time in the United States. He played twice on the smaller North American rinks, at the 2010 and 2011 IIHF World Junior Championships, fueling his hunger to play in the NHL.
“I’m so excited to be over here and to get to know this game,” Sundstrom said. “I know the [North American] game, but I’d like to know it better, and to see the style of play for a whole season. I think it’s going to be good. I want to earn a jersey here and earn a nice role. Center is my natural position, but I don’t care where I play.”
Sundstrom arrived early on Long Island to join teammates for informal skates and get acclimated to his new environment. As far as his play on the ice, the Gothenburg, SWE native doesn’t have any glaring holes, but wants to improve all-around.
“The coaches told me I’m pretty good at being a two-way player, but I need to raise my play everywhere,” Sundstrom said. “I want to work on all aspects of my game to get better.”
Sound Tigers Training Camp runs through Oct. 11, before the team heads to Hartford for Opening Night against the Connecticut Whale on Oct. 12. With eight of the 27 players in camp listed as rookies, there will be a lot of competition in the meantime for roster spots.