July 5, 2016

By Craig Elsten

ANAHEIM, Calif. – If there indeed were a time and place for hockey, a steamy 4th of July morning in Anaheim would not naturally gravitate to the top of the list. And yet, by 8:30am on Independence Day, hundreds of Anaheim Ducks fans were already lined up, geared up and ready to cheer on the stars of their not-too-distant future.

The Anaheim Ducks held their 2016 Development Camp from July 1-4 at Anaheim Ice, capped off by an intra-squad scrimmage on the 4th of July. A packed house greeted the top prospects of the Ducks organization for both their 9am practice and 10am game, which featured two halves of 25 minutes with a running clock, separated by a 15-minute intermission.

The White Team defeated the Black Team 4-2 in the scrimmage, which featured all six of the Ducks’ recent 2016 draft picks, as well as college and amateur invites, and young players already in the team’s pipeline. Several past, current and future San Diego Gulls were on the ice, all with the common dream of breaking in and sticking with the Anaheim Ducks in the National Hockey League.

The NHL’s development camps offer young draftees and prospects an opportunity unique to major American professional sports. Imagine, for example, if an NFL team could draft a prospect out of high school, allow him to go all the way through college before signing him, but still got to bring said player to summer mini-camp each year in between. This is the case in the National Hockey League, where 2016 first round picks Max Jones and Sam Steel can share the ice with established players such as Nick Ritchie and others on college or amateur tryouts before returning to their junior hockey teams for another year or more.

“The purpose of the development camp is to allow the draftees of the past three years to come together and gel,” said Gulls assistant coach Brett Ferguson, who was part of the on-and-off-ice staff during the four-day camp, “They will go off to their own teams (in the fall), but in here they can start to work together as a team.”

“They may not be Ducks right now, but they will be Ducks three and four years down the road.”

The Monday scrimmage also gave hungry Ducks fans a rare glimpse of European imports such as Julius Nattinen, Jacob Larsson and Nick Sorenson, all of whom have another season remaining in their respective leagues before becoming AHL eligible.

Ducks assistant coach Trent Yawney and Gulls assistant coach Marty Wilford ran the development camp and coached the Black and White teams in the concluding scrimmage.

After a spirited morning practice, the players retreated to the locker rooms underneath Anaheim Ice, only to return to a thunderous cheer as the scrimmage began in earnest. The whistle blew, the puck dropped, and July hockey moved from dream to reality for a precious hour of time.

Several names familiar to Gulls fans showed well during the game. Nick Ritchie got the scoring started with a perfect diagonal feed through the offensive zone to his Gulls teammate from the year prior, Ondrej Kase, who slammed home the one-timer for the scrimmage’s first goal. Nick added a goal of his own later in the first half as the White Team took a 2-1 lead into the halftime break.

Tyler Morley, who practiced with the Gulls as an amateur tryout (ATO) last season, added a goal for Team White in the second half, matched for Team Black by another young Gull who managed to crack the playoff lineup in 2015-16: Kalle Kossila. The St. Cloud State star got Team Black back in the game with a second half goal to narrow the score to 4-2. A furious empty net scramble came up dry for both teams, and the whistle sounded to end a fun and fast-paced hour of competition.

For Ritchie, who played 33 games with the Ducks last season, posting 2-2=4 points, along with 16-14=30 points in 38 games with the American Hockey League Gulls, a third tour of the Ducks’ Development Camp is what he hopes will be a final stepping stone toward his NHL career.

“Last year was great for me, getting the chance to play in both leagues (the AHL and NHL),” said Ritchie, “I’m still young, and I’m going to get faster, stronger and in better ‘cardio’ shape. I plan to come into (training camp) in the best shape I’ve ever been in, and hopefully that will make all the difference.”

While many of the Ducks’ top draft picks from 2016 will be returning either to junior hockey or leagues overseas, young players such as Kossila, Morley, Devin Sideroff and Keaton Thompson all are pressing to play their first full season of professional hockey, be it with the parent club or in San Diego.

Sideroff, a third round pick of the Ducks in 2015, cracked the San Diego Gulls lineup for a single game at the end of the regular season. He hopes to make a more lasting contribution in San Diego in the fall.

“I’m looking to be a more consistent player, a top guy, improve the mental side of my game and really show the Anaheim Ducks and the Gulls what I can do. It would be a huge step for me (to play regularly in San Diego) and I’d feel really good about that.”

For Kossila, the chance to make a favorable first impression has been redeemed, but the next step is one drenched in sweat.

“I’m just working on getting stronger,” said Kossila, who was introduced to the level of physicality needed to succeed in the Calder Cup Playoffs, drawing into the lineup during the Gulls’ second round defeat to the Ontario Reign, “To go from college to the pros and see how different the game is, it was a great learning experience.”

“The biggest thing for me now is getting bigger, stronger.”

Ferguson noted how Development Camp offers an opportunity for college and amateur free agents to try and make their mark, impressing the upper brass of the Ducks front office.

“Tyler Morley is a perfect example,” Ferguson expounded, “He was a college free agent, and a lot of the coaching and management staff had never seen him play. Tyler had a good week, had a great scrimmage today, and has a chance to open some eyes around here.”

Many of these names have a chance to form the core of the 2016-17 San Diego Gulls, and a couple could break through and reach the NHL; others may still be a year, or even three years, away from San Diego and Anaheim. The next step forward is a solitary one, with hours of hard individual physical training looming over the coming weeks and months prior to NHL training camp in September.