Most rookies will spend their first few days as a pro getting to know their new teammates and coaches. For Beau Schmitz, Checkers training camp will be more of a reunion.
Depending on who makes what team, the 21-year-old defenseman could potentially be one of seven Plymouth Whalers alumni on Charlotte's opening night roster. It won't be quite the same as getting called up from a lower-league affiliate, but one imagines it will feel more like that and less like the first day of school.
"Knowing so many guys that I've played with makes it a lot easier and a lot more comfortable," said Schmitz.
Of the Whaler grads in the Carolina Hurricanes organization, Schmitz has played with all but Justin Peters - the oldest of the group who had already turned pro when Schmitz played his first Ontario Hockey League season in 2008-09. Some, like Brett Bellemore and Chris Terry, were teammates for just one season. Others he knows better – he's formed a pairing with Michal Jordan and still goes fishing with fellow Michigan native A.J. Jenks each summer.
He's even taking his defensive partner with him, as Austin Levi, the Hurricanes' third-round pick in 2010, is also turning pro. If that wasn't enough, there are also the two Traverse City rookie tournaments he played in as a member of Hurricanes teams that included many other current Checkers players. The coach of those squads? Charlotte's Jeff Daniels.
It was at those tournaments that Schmitz, one of a few select invites the Hurricanes brought to complement their own group of drafted players, developed the relationships that eventually resulted in his first pro contract.
"It was a great opportunity," he said. "It was a fun time, I got to meet a lot of the guys and it definitely gave me confidence to know that I could play with them."
Still, a formal offer never materialized until after this season – his fourth with the Whalers and second as team captain.
"I didn't get drafted, but (the Hurricanes) told me they were interested in me," he said. "I kept in contact with them and it ended up working out. It was definitely a goal of mine and I'm glad it happened, even though it took me longer than I would have liked."
What finally made it possible was something of a breakout that he experienced last season. His scoring totals were always solid, but his 54 points (14g, 40a) in 62 games easily eclipsed the 37 he posted in his rookie year. While that was nice and good for a third-placed tie among all OHL blueliners, improvements to his all-around game were perhaps more important.
"I've always been an offensive defenseman, but my defensive zone could have been a lot better," admitted Schmitz. "I feel like I got better at both this season.
"It was definitely my best year in the OHL," he added. "Coach (Mike) Velluci helped me so much and taught me a lot, and I think I finally became the player I was supposed to be."
Should the NHL lockout continue into the start of the season, Schmitz, like most rookies around the AHL, will have his hands full. With the Hurricanes ensuring that top-end blueliners Justin Faulk, Marc-Andre Gragnani and Bobby Sanguinetti would start the season with the Checkers, that leaves less-experienced players like Schmitz scrambling for spots. Defense will be the most competitive of any position, with 11 players vying for six or seven places on the opening night roster.
If nothing else, Schmitz could at least have the advantage of being able to settle in quickly.