WILKES-BARRE — Jeff Christian might have some hard choices to make this weekend.
The head coach of the Wheeling Nailers is in town running the first open tryout for his team, held on Saturday and Sunday at the Toyota Sportsplex. More than 40 players paid $350 each to have a shot to catch Christian’s eye and become a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins organization. On Saturday, Christian said the Nailers will offer at least three invitations to its training camp in September, maybe more.
“We’ve seen some talent out there,” Christian said. “You get all shapes and sizes when you conduct an open tryout like this, and we’re pleased with the caliber of the players here.”
The chance to tryout for the Nailers generated plenty of interest, as players traveled from as far away as Canada to try out. They ranged in age from 20 to over 30 years old, and several had experience playing in the Southern Pro Hockey League or college. In addition to Christian, the head coach of the SPHL’s Fayetteville Fireantz, Jeff Bes, was also at the tryout to recruit prospective players for his team.
“A lot of these guys are getting exposure they normally wouldn’t get,” Christian said. “They’re paying to be here and some of them travelled quite a ways to take a shot. That’s what it’s all about.”
The two-day camp featured two games, a tour of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins locker room and meals prepared by the Metz Culinary Management of Kingston, which provides meals for the Penguins during the season.
While most of the players were from out of the area, the tryout did attract three local prospects - Craig Skudalski of Wyoming, Wilkes-Barre native John Ulichney and William Romanowski of Harding.
Christian said on Saturday he didn’t have a chance to look at everybody yet, but Skudalski already caught his eye. Christian is familiar with Skudalski, who attended Wheeling’s training camp last year before playing in the SPHL and the Federal Hockey League.
“I know Craig really well. He looks much improved,” Christian said. “I look for him, with his size and speed, to dominate this camp.”
When asked if Skudalski could follow Shavertown’s Patrick McGrath as the second local player to play in the Pittsburgh organization, Christian said it’s possible.
Skudalski, 22, said such an opportunity would mean everything to him.
“I’m really close with Patrick McGrath and seeing him play here is awesome for the community,” Skudalski said. “With the Penguins winning the Stanley Cup again, to be in the same organization is something everybody wants to be a part of.”
Romanowski, 22, hoped the tryout would become an annual event.
“It’s really nice to have a professional team come out here so us local guys get a chance,” he said. “Patrick McGrath is a great guy who works really hard. It would be really nice to follow him.”
For Ulichney, who graduated from Coughlin, just having a chance to tryout in front of pro coaches is a dream come true.
“I didn’t hesitate to sign up. This is what I want to do,” he said, adding there is enough hockey talent in the area to support the trout each year.
“We have a lot of up-and-coming talent here. This is great for the local kids.”
The tryout not only attracted players, but an agent as well. Annice Reaves is an agent and president of Sticks and Stilettos. Her firm brought nine players to the tryout, and Reaves said Christian and the Pittsburgh organization were a tremendous draw.
Several of Reaves’ players are from the SPHL and the others played at the college level.
“I go to very few camps. I go to where I can get a fair evaluation for our players and put them in a better position to get to the next level. Jeff will give me a fair evaluation,” she said. “I do have two or three that I think can play at this level and he’ll give them a fair shot.”
While Reaves got her players to the tryout, once on the ice, it was all up to them. All of the players have only two days to show their stuff, and even the short time frame can be a challenge they weren’t deterred.
“They have to bring their A game. You’ve only got a short period of time to impress us,” Christian said. “They know what to expect. It’s not just pay your $350 and thanks for coming. We’re actually here to evaluate the talent.”