This weekend, the Indy Fuel will open their second training
camp as an ECHL entry. Last season was an exhilarating ride – with the team starting out to a 6-21-6 start, and then after making several changes to the roster, rallied to a 25-9-5 finish to finish the year with a 31-30-11 record, coming within a game of a playoff berth.
The Fuel started the year with a young core of players, many of whom have returned – especially up front, where veteran Garett Bembridge joins Peter Schneider, Pete Massar, Johnny McGuire, Rhett Bly and Matt White in returning to the team. The Fuel will have a lot of newcomers on defense – Anders Franzon is the only returnee who played a game for the Fuel last season – but they have experience. The Fuel signed three veteran defensemen, including former NHLer Kevin Quick.
Earlier this week, we had a chance to chat with Fuel coach Scott Hillman about the training camp and the upcoming season.
How excited are you to begin training camp this weekend?
Absolutely excited to get started. A lot of work goes into the offseason, starting right after the last game of last season, you start to evaluate, look at the rosters, look at what’s out there and start to build your roster. It’s been an exciting five months or so.
For hockey players or coaches, because we love the game, it’s extremely exciting time. I’ve been watching some of our potential prospects from rookie camp, now to Rockford’s training camp, it’s really exciting to see the team on the ice.
Describe the relationship with Chicago and Rockford and its importance.
It’s a tremendous relationship. We’re a year into it. We have a better understanding of each other and how everything works between Indy and Rockford and on to Chicago it’s exciting for us as an organization and exciting for the opportunity to work together.
How much different is this offseason from last year, given you’ve played a season rather than starting from scratch?
We believe we’re much closer to being on an equal playing field, with the fact that we’ve had a year of everything – a year to form our core of players, a year to evaluate the league as a whole, a year to get into our affiliation, all sorts of things, we’re so far ahead of where we were. That’s very exciting. We intentionally started with a very young group last year in order to try to develop our own core of guys, now we’ve got that core of guys and we’ve added some really good veterans to them.
The team had one of the ECHL’s best records the second half of the season. How important was that in establishing a foundation for this offseason?
We had so much to do last year, it’s nice to see the progress begin. We also know there’s no secret that the teams we’re playing in the second half of the year, we may not have seen them at their best because they were playing a team below them in the standings, so we’re not naïve to the fact that we need to be way better than we were, even at the end of last year. That’s been our goal. We’re ready to start with a fresh slate.
This year’s camp roster looks to be very deep. How important is it to have what looks like a lot of competition for jobs in training camp?
That’s very important. You need to be a competitive environment. We’re only a year into this here and so until we achieve the level that we expect in being one of the top teams in the league, we’re never going to be able to be satisfied. Our returning players have to be able to understand that. We hope to have a lot of competition in camp.
How important is it to have a number of players back who were here, who know the expectations and are familiar with the system?
It is great to have a group that is familiar. Whether that turns out to be a third of the team or a little more, it is important. Every member of our staff last year was also new to working with each other. We came together from a lot of different organizations and came together. All those things, all that growing for us and the feeling out process is behind us. Those things will be a lot different heading into year two, knowing each other as a staff and also knowing each other on the ice.
It appears you have added a lot of depth to the forward group. How does that help to have a lot of players with 20-goal potential?
We certainly think we’ve added more offensive scoring punch. We think we’re certainly deeper. We were kind of a three or four-player threat at any time last year, now we believe we’ll have the potential for someone on the third line to score 20 goals. We’re excited with that depth. We’ve got to be able to score on all three lines in this league to win big games. I certainly think we’ve added some pieces.
On defense, you had a very young unit last year with Anders Franzon a second-year player and a lot of rookies. This offseason, you’ve added three vets to the blueline. How important is that experience?
If you want to be a good team in this league, you have to have some guys that understand the pro grame, and again, we took a lot of lumps, but again, we wanted to have that feeling-out process in year one. To have guys on the roster in (Zach) Miskovic, Quick, (Dave) Pszenyczny, that means Franzon goes from being the most experienced to fourth-most experienced guy. Hopefully, that helps us with a lot of experience.
Your goaltenders – Shane Owen and whomever gets assigned from Rockford – should really appreciate that depth on defense.
For sure – we’re pleased in the direction we’re looking at. Shane’s a guy we wanted in here to start our franchise. We weren’t able to do that until midseason. Once he got here, that’s when we started winning hockey games. He’s had a great summer as well. He looks great in Rockford’s camp. We’re glad to have him and whoever we get from Rockford in goal.
The group of new players this year – rookies and free-agent signees – include a lot of players who were captains, alternate captains, Academic All-Conference players. What is the importance of having high-character players come in?
It’s certainly a big piece of what we stand for as an organization. As a coach, what I’ve always stood for. We’ve got to have good quality people and good teammates in the locker room. As much as anything during training camp, we’re evaluating talent, but also how they fit into the team concept and be great representatives for our logo and our organization w/in community.
What are you looking to get out of training camp & two exhibitions to prepare for October 16 and the season opener?
There’s so much to evaluate in a short time – especially when camp’s going to be as competitive. We’re excited with our young prospects, excited with our veterans. It’s not a lot of time, so we’re going to be trying to get guys into units. You need the right pieces on a team. You don’t need the 10 most offensive forwards, you have to see see who’s going to fit together, who can kill penalties, who can fit together on a power play unit, who can fill different roles. That’s important.