EVERETT — It’s as if they blend in with the veterans.
Eight participants in this year’s Everett Silvertips training camp, with their forest green hockey pants and helmets, look for all intents and purposes as if they’re returning members of the team. All that distinguishes them from the real deal are cages they wear on their helmets to protect their faces, a dead giveaway that they haven’t reached the Western Hockey League level just yet.
Everett Youth Hockey’s brand new 16-under midget AAA team, the Everett Junior Silvertips, makes its debut this season, and not only are several of its players getting a chance to show their stuff on a grander stage this week, the team is also giving the region’s top hockey talents an opportunity to stay home.
Friday was the second day of Everett’s training camp, which runs through Sunday at Comcast Arena, and Junior Silvertips names litter the rosters. The eight members of the team in camp are forwards Brendan Studioso, Harrison Clark, Troy Pichette, Alec Johnson, Brendan Weir and Sean Mallonee, and defensemen Wyatte Wylie and Matthew Clarke. Studioso and Wylie were both selected by Everett in this year’s bantam draft and are members of the team’s 50-player protected list, while the other six received invitations to try out.
“I think it’s good,” Pichette said about getting an opportunity with the Tips. “It definitely brings the team together and shows we have some good players and some good talent.”
Said Junior Silvertips coach Nick Fouts: “It’s great for them to be able to play against guys of that size and strength, they can take that to their games at the midget level. The other thing is speed. You watch the way the Silvertips practice, everything is fast paced and I think that will translate back into our game as well.”
But just as valuable as the training camp experience is the mere presence of the Junior Silvertips.
Traditionally, when top-level youth hockey players from the Puget Sound region reach 15 years old, they have to go elsewhere to find strong enough competition to further their development. Many head south to join some of the higher-level programs in California and Arizona, others travel east to attend high schools in traditional U.S. hockey outposts such as Minnesota.
Current NHL player T.J. Oshie, who grew up in Snohomish County, took this route, attending high school in Warroad, Minnesota. All but three of the 18 players on the Junior Silvertips roster left the region last season for hockey purposes.
But that can be a major burden for both the players and their families. The players have to leave their homes and spend most of the year living with host families, and being a part of those elite programs is a considerable financial strain on the families.
“Last year was kind of hard, it was just weird to be in a different home,” said Brendan Weir, who played last season in California for the Anaheim Junior Ducks. “It’s awesome to be with family. I didn’t realize how great it was to be with my family until I didn’t see them every day.”
So when the Silvertips took over Everett Youth Hockey last year, one of their goals was finding a way to retain elite talent and not force players to seek the requisite competition elsewhere.
To ensure the team would find that competition, the Junior Silvertips were enrolled in the North American Prospects Hockey League, meaning the team will travel five weekends to participate in showcase tournaments in places like Blaine, Minnesota, and Troy, Michigan. The team is also hosting a midget AAA tournament after Christmas.
In addition, the Junior Silvertips reached an agreement with the British Columbia Major Midget League. The BCMML has 11 teams, meaning one team always has a bye. The Junior Silvertips are stepping in as the designated bye weekend competition.
The team then brought in a quality coach with local ties. Fouts, a native of Lake Stevens, left the area to play junior hockey for the Lincoln Stars of the United States Hockey League, then played at New England College before spending three years professionally in the minors. He returned to Lincoln to help coach the Stars for three seasons before coming back to the area.
“I enjoy a lot of aspects of it,” Fouts said about why he committed to the Junior Silvertips. “I’m able to move back home and be with my family. Also, having these fresh minds, you kind of get to mould them how you want. Having had the junior experience myself I feel I have a lot I can bring to these kids and get them ready for that.”
The team ended up drawing players from far beyond Snohomish County’s borders. Six reside in the county — Studioso (Mukilteo), Wylie (Lake Stevens), Pichette (Snohomish), Clarke (Snohomish), Brendan Weir (Everett) and Chase Freeman (Edmonds). But others came from as far east as Spokane and as far west as Port Orchard. One came all the way from Fairbanks, Alaska.
As a result, the talent level of the Junior Silvertips ended up being greater than they could have hoped.
“We’re definitely on par,” Pichette responded when asked how the Junior Silvertips compare to his Los Angeles Junior Kings team from last season. “A lot of the guys from Washington kind of get overlooked because Washington isn’t a hockey hotbed. But everyone’s played AA or AAA most of their lives, so I think we’re ready.”
The eight players at Everett’s training camp aren’t the only members of the Junior Silvertips attending WHL training camps. Trail Thompson is in camp with the Seattle Thunderbirds, Will Connors is with the Kelowna Rockets and Carter Wade is with the Medicine Hat Tigers.
So it seems the Junior Silvertips have made big initial strides.
“I think it’s the beginning of fulfilling our goal of trying to create opportunity for these players,” Jerry Weir said. “To be here and go through this experience is the first step for them to achieving their next goal of moving on in hockey.”
Check out Nick Patterson’s Silvertips blog at http://www.heraldnet.com/silvertipsblog, and follow him on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.