The Checkers made their triumphant return to the Bojangles Coliseum ice Tuesday morning, officially kicking off their training camp.
“Everyone went through what they went through last year, everyone had a different situation,” said Head Coach Geordie Kinnear. “So we’re all excited to be back. Anytime you get to come to work and get better I think it’s a great day.”
Charlotte opted not to play in the AHL’s shortened 2020-21 campaign, making this the first time the team has hit the ice since March 11, 2020. This season presents the chance for the players to get back to a sense of normalcy after coming off a unique, condensed schedule.
“It kind of just reframes your excitement and gratitude to play,” said defenseman Connor Carrick, who split last season between New Jersey and Binghamton. “I still remember that day the season was cancelled, the energy and the angst behind that. So it’s really exciting to come out and practice again.”
Aside from being a cathartic return to action, Tuesday’s practice provided a first glimpse at the new-look Checkers. Affiliated with both the Florida Panthers and Seattle Kraken for the season, Charlotte’s group on the ice featured a mix of prospects from both organizations. And while the idea of merging the two sides may seem awkward from the outside, Kinnear made a point to break down those walls from day one.
“It’s not two separate organizations, we’re one team now,” said Kinnear. “We’re playing for the Charlotte Checkers, that’s what it’s all about. There will be challenges along the way, we would be kidding ourselves if we didn’t think there would be, but that’s the philosophy and the mindset - we’re playing for the Charlotte Checkers and we’re going to become one group and we’re going to play for the guy beside us.”
While many of the Florida prospects have experience working with Kinnear - whether in previous AHL seasons or NHL training camp - a lot of the group got their first taste of how their new coach operates.
“It was positive and high energy,” said Carrick of Tuesday’s skate. “[Kinnear] is going to demand an NHL level of execution. And then it’s the non-negotiables - there are certain things that have to be present in your game every day throughout the lineup. That starts with the first day and I’m really excited by it.”
“I’m laser-focused on the work and the compete,” said Kinnear. “Then their skill will take over after that. That’s the philosophy.”
Veterans like Carrick - who has nearly 250 NHL games to his name - set the tone on day one for a group that includes no shortage of fresh-faced skaters.
“I was once that hungry young kid who was trying to sort out the pro game, so any player that wants to use me as a resource, I’m here for them,” he said. “Point blank I think I’m an everyday NHLer, but most importantly I’m here to play and win within the team concept. That’s always your ticket to the big dog league.”
There are plenty of roster battles and lineup decisions to come over the next two weeks of training camp, but day one felt like a celebration of finally making it back to the ice.
“You know there’s ice tomorrow and ice the day after that, so now you can focus on the actual criteria of the job as opposed to the outside uncontrollables,” said Carrick.
“I think today was a great day for everybody,” said Kinnear. “We’re getting to know them as people and we’re focused on becoming one group.”