The Crusaders have more holes to fill than a dentist offering a free clinic in Alabama.
The Sherwood Park Junior A Crusaders hockey team is in the unenviable position of trying to replace two thirds of its starting roster as 12 players were either heading off to college, Western Hockey League teams or were no longer age eligible after their season came to an end with a second round playoff loss to the Spruce Grove Saints.
As a result, their annual Spring Camp last weekend was even more important than usual.
Just under 180 young hockey hopefuls came out to the camp at the Sherwood Park Arena knowing that opportunities abounded for next season.
Crusaders GM and head coach Tim Fragle liked what he saw from the auditioning athletes.
“We have had a very good turnout and it is players of a good quality and some depth too,” he said. “Friday was a bit slow, but it really picked up after the first day. We’ve identified some good young players that we think are very close to stepping in. We’ll see when we get them back in August against some of our older returning guys to find out how capable they really are.
“We really like our prospects, but the question mark is how close are they?”
The Crusaders are partially in this situation because of their own success moving their players on to U.S. colleges with scholarships in hand, second only to the Brooks Bandits this season with five free-ride college passes earned by Cru mates — a few of them leaving the program a little earlier than expected as a result and altering Park plans.
However, it is that success that is starting to bring more high-quality players out to the Park, knowing it has become a destination for scouts.
“We have players contacting us now,” Fragle said. “Our track record over the last three or four years has been really good for developing players and pushing them on to the NCAA and WHL.
“People view this as a developmental team. We’re in a developmental league, whether some teams like it or not. I think parents who do their homework see that players are getting better throughout the year when they are playing in Sherwood Park and that is all you can ask. When you are looking at where you want your son to play, you do that kind of homework. We feel like we are now getting some good people who are coming to us and want to play for our program as a result.”
The main hurdle was developing that reputation — plus the prime location of the Park plays a factor.
“If you are looking to get the most exposure, we are in a big city,” Fragle said. “Anybody that wants to come in and do some scouting, it is pretty easy for them to watch the Sherwood Park and Spruce Grove teams.”
There has also been a tremendous response from local talent looking to stay in their hometown.
“We had a great turnout from Park kids this weekend, the most since I have been around,” Fragle said. “We have a good contingent of the Midget AAA Kings players and three quarters of the Midget 15 AAA Squires players. We have a few of the Midget AAs and even guys from the Bantam AAA Flyers. I’d say we have 50 kids from Sherwood Park alone in our camp, so we are thrilled with that.”
Unfortunately, Bantam phenom and Park product Sam Steel wasn’t one of them as he was recently selected to represent the region at the upcoming Alberta Cup.
Fragle said his own coaches and scouts had some specific areas of need that they were focused on during last weekend’s camp.
“We’re looking specifically on the back end to add some guys, whether it is prospects or through trades,” he said. “Obviously, a goaltender with (Chicago Blackhawks draft pick) Matt Tomkins moving on. We have a few guys that we think are close, but we’re not sure if we have our guy yet. We feel we are in good shape up front with the depth that we have. It is more so on the back end and in net.”
In addition to Tomkins, also moving on from the team was leading scorer Danny Smith, who will be attending the Rochester Institute of Technology this fall.