As a sports reporter who’s followed the Everett Silvertips since the beginning, I treat my first glance at the Tips’ training camp schedule each year as a routine event tantamount to an evening teeth-brushing session. Camp always takes place on the same days of the same week every August, so there’s never any surprises about the dates. The format may contain small tweaks from year to year, but nothing outrageous. The main thing I’m interested in is how early I’ll have to drag myself out of bed to catch the start of the first scrimmage.
But when I saw this year’s training camp schedule I did a double take. Did I really see five teams worth of players?
Yep, the Silvertips have an unusually large number of players attending this year’s training camp, which concludes with Sunday’s Green vs. Grey Game at Xfinity Arena. And that increase in player attendance may be the first hint of change happening within the organization since the offseason parting with head coach Kevin Constantine.
In the past the Tips always brought four teams worth of players to training camp, which equated to 70-some players. That group consisted of the majority of the players on Everett’s 50-player protected list, plus a couple dozen non-listed invitees.
But this year Everett has 97 names on its training-camp roster, necessitating the creation of an additional team. The Tips have roughly double the number of invited players at this year’s camp compared to years past.
“It’s exciting because we didn’t invite any more kids than we usually do,” Everett director of player personnel Bil La Forge said. “It seems like it’s becoming more of a destination, kids wanted to come here.
“We didn’t even get into the second round of invites this year, we just sent out our first round and those are the guys who came,” La Forge added. “I didn’t have to do a lot of recruiting this year.”
What does more players at camp mean? It means a greater chance of unearthing a gem who fell through the cracks. Sure, 15- and 16-year-old unlisted invitees face an uphill climb to catch the scouts’ eyes and earn a place in the organization, but it does happen.
Take Michael Wuchterl. At the team’s first training camp in 2003 in Strathmore, Alberta — the Tips couldn’t hold training camp at home because the Everett Events Center was still under construction — a 16-year-old Wuchterl showed up as an invitee and hit everything that moved, earning not just a spot on Everett’s list but a place on the inaugural roster that went on to shock the WHL by winning the Western Conference.
Or how about Byron Froese. Froese was an invitee both as a 15- and a 16-year-old in 2006 and 2007, getting listed and signed in his second go-around. He went on to be part of the most famous line in franchise history — the fabled Kid Line alongside Kellan Tochkin and Tyler Maxwell — and get picked in the fourth round of the 2009 NHL draft.
Then there’s Manraj Hayer. Hayer dazzled as a 15-year-old invitee in 2008 and was immediately listed by the team. He ended up playing four seasons in Everett, recording back-to-back 40-plus-point seasons as a 19- and 20-year-old.
The current source of inspiration to invitees is defenseman Kyle Walker. Walker was a 15-year-old camp invitee in 2015, was listed by Everett later that season, signed with the Tips at last year’s camp, and is now is strong contender to make the team at 17.
“I think he’s a perfect example,” La Forge said about Walker. “With a 14-year-old draft it’s so hard because these kids develop. When Kyle Walker was 14 he was 5-7. He’s 6-3 now. It makes a big difference. I think there’s good opportunity for these kids.”
Getting more players to camp means more chances of finding a Froese or a Hayer. But why was Everett able to entice more invited players to camp this year?
“I have no idea,” La Forge said. “I think the success, right? Success breeds success, and I think people want to win. We’ve shown we can do that here.”
Indeed, the Tips won two of the past three U.S. Division championships. However, the coach who delivered those titles, Constantine, was jettisoned this offseason as his contract wasn’t renewed, despite guiding Everett to an unlikely division title.
And that touches on one of the theories why a successful coach like Constantine wasn’t retained. Though the Tips won games under Constantine, they tended to do so in a defensive manner that placed a higher priority on discipline and structure than offensive creativity. That style may have turned off some of Everett’s better offensive prospects in recent years, players like Tyson Jost and Nick Henry who chose not to sign with the Tips and instead became offensive stars in the NCAA (Jost at North Dakota) or with other WHL teams (Henry with Regina).
Perhaps the larger turnout at this year’s training camp, including 100-percent attendance from this year’s bantam draft class, indicates that theory holds weight.
But it’s immaterial now. Constantine is gone, Dennis Williams is installed in his place and Everett has more invitees attending training camp. And the Tips hope that’s a harbinger of positive change coming to the franchise.
Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.