In some ways Sunday was a wonderful day for Johnstown Tomahawks coach Jason Spence.
He got to see his second-year North American Hockey League team play a spirited and fast-paced intersquad game in front of nearly 300 fans at Planet Ice. There was talent all over the ice, which could mean an even better season for the Tomahawks, who made the Robertson Cup playoffs in their inaugural campaign.
But it was also a miserable day for him, as he had to tell about half of those players that they had been cut from the Tomahawks and wouldn’t be back for the team’s training camp next month.
“It was awful,” Spence said. “It was so good and so tough and bad at the same time.”
The team did not immediately release its roster, but Spence did say that nearly all of the players from last year’s squad that were in camp will return. They include forwards J.B. Baker, Jaycob McCombs, Brandon Reinholz, Zach Wallace and Jordan Watt; defensemen Cody Bentzel, Jake Fairchild, Mitch Hall and Dakoda Menslage; and goalie Colin Brennan.
Forward Jesse Kessler, who was with the team last season, missed camp with an injury but will return for training camp.
The rest of the returnees had to earn their spots, according to Spence.
“I think the veterans had to pull their socks up,” he said. “I think they saw the talent level. They know what they have to do.”
Two players who spent time with the Tomahawks last season – Joe Bender and Westmont’s Corey Schafer – were cut before Sunday’s all-star game. Tre Pridgen of the Prospect section of Johnstown also did not make it to Sunday.
Fairchild was impressed by what he saw from his second Tomahawks camp.
“The talent was pretty good,” the defenseman said. “We had a good team last year. We know we fell short (in the playoffs). I think they’re pretty comparable camps. This year we’ve got a lot of young guys that look like they’ve got some good potential. It’ll be fun to see how it turns out.”
Fairchild squared off against Griffin Leach in one of two fights during the game in which his Red team beat the Blue team 6-3.
“Today was a lot better than the last few days, for me anyway, and for my Red team,” Fairchild said. “We worked a lot harder. Guys knew that today was the last day; that they were going to be making cuts, so guys were playing and doing what they had to do to get on the team.”
Spence said that he was impressed by Casey Linkenheld, an 18-year-old forward who was the team’s top draft pick this spring.
“He had a great game today,” Spence said. “He scored a nice goal today. He’s a really nice player.”
Another player that stood out during camp was Eric Tien, a forward tendered by the team in the spring.
“He was great,” Spence said. “I don’t want to say it was a surprise, because it wasn’t. I know what he can do and he did it. He’s a guy that is 20 years old this year and he has to be a leader, because he is. He’s a great player and a really, really good person.”
Also earning a spot in training camp was Alex Okicki, a 20-year-old goalie who played with Kalamazoo in the NAHL last year.
“We had success last year against Kalamazoo, but it wasn’t because he was playing goal,” Spence said. “He made so many big stops for them last year. He plays better when he’s getting a lot of action.”
Players like Linkenheld, Tien and Okicki made Spence’s decisions very difficult.
“I think both teams could have played in the North American league last year,” Spence said. “You think about how good our team can be (because) we’re making one team out of those two.”
If that wasn’t enough to make it a good day for Spence, he got some more good news in the reports from people around Johnstown about how the players, all of whom are 20 or younger, behaved during the four-day camp.
“I’ve heard from people that work in the restaurants how polite they’ve been,” Spence said. “I know a lot of people in this town. People are telling me how proud of the boys I should be because of how polite the boys are. It makes you feel good when you know how bad they want to be here.”
It also makes him ache for those who can’t be here.