All it took was a visit to Wilkes-Barre during the playoffs in April to change Jeff Christian’s mind.
The Wheeling Nailers head coach intended to hold an open tryout for the this summer at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Pittsburgh. But then Christian, who worked with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton coaches during the playoffs, saw the Toyota Sportsplex and the passion for hockey in the region and knew he had to hold the tryouts in Wilkes-Barre.
“I was so impressed with the facility here that I wanted to hold it in Wilkes-Barre,” Christian said.
Now, local players and those from across the East Coast will travel to the Toyota Sportsplex in July with the dream of making not only a pro hockey team, but a club in the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins organization.
The first-ever tryouts will be held on July 22 and 23. They’ll be open to any players, and up to 60 can register.
Christian said a few other ECHL teams hold open tryouts and it fills a void for talented players who may have flown under the radar but want to take the next step.
“It’s an opportunity a lot of guys dream of. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Christian said, adding he intends on inviting at least three players to Wheeling’s training camp.
The two-day tryout will feature all the details of a pro hockey camp. There will be off-ice evaluations and testing, meals prepared by the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton chef, skills sessions, practices and scrimmages replicating game situations.
And it will all be under the watchful eye of Christian, who ultimately decides who will earn an invite to Wheeling’s camp a few months from now.
Christian was New Jersey’s second-round pick in 1988 and played pro hockey for 21 years, including NHL stints with the Devils, Pittsburgh and Phoenix. He has also played in six different pro leagues, often working his way up through the minors.
Christian knows how difficult it can be to get noticed in hockey, and that’s why the open training camp could reveal a gem.
“I’m really hoping there’s a great story that comes out of this,” he said.
Jason Jarecki, general manager of Toyota Sportsplex, hopes the Wheeling tryout becomes an annual event in the area. Jarecki previously worked for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Pioneers in the Arenafootball2 league and said that team had open trouts in the area that produced players.
He’s optimistic the same thing can happen with pro hockey.
“With arena football every year we’d sign players out of the open tryout. This is a legitimate opportunity to make a pro hockey team,” Jarecki said. “This helps those players who maybe haven’t played in front of the right audience or don’t have an agent to guide them. It can be a game-changer for a player.”
Christian said ECHL players are typically in the 20-26 age range, but said there isn’t a limit. Some players coming out of college and through the lower minors might be on the higher side of the age bracket, but they shouldn’t be discouraged, he added.
“We’re not limiting ourselves. If you’re quality, you’re quality,” Christian said.
While the Wilkes-Barre and Scranton areas have plenty of hockey players to take advantage of the tryout, Christian expects to draw players from all across the East Coast and Canada. He intends to reach out to local coaches to see if they can help out and even scout players for their clubs, and a big focus of the camp will be replicating game situations through scrimmages.
“Skills are important, but anyone can skate around cones,” Christian said. “We want to see what guys can do in even strength, special teams and odd-man situations. I want to see what they look like in a game setting.”