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Back Check: Flames Hockey Preseason

Before Flames hockey season, it’s all about looking forward. Why not look back for a change? In the process of writing this season preview, I discovered a lot goes down before the first puck drop. Here’s a look at the program’s preseason and how it prepares those involved.

Ben Hughes can’t decide what to eat for breakfast.

Yesterday he threw it up, running hill sprints with the rest of his teammates. And there’s a good chance he’ll see tomorrow’s first meal a second time, too, given that he has no idea what stomach-churning workout awaits.

Monday, it was suicides on the lacrosse fields. Tuesday, the aforementioned hills. Wednesday was a team skate, and Thursday?

“I don’t know,” Hughes shrugged. “That’s how it’s been the whole week — you never know what the next day is going to be.”

“Hell week,” as it is affectionately known amongst the players, is a Liberty men’s division I (DI) hockey tradition. The annual on- and off-ice fitness intensive, organized by the coaching staff and team trainer Joe Orlandi, offers the 24-man roster the preseason anxiety that inevitably heralds each new year on the ice.

For their DII and DIII counterparts, it comes in the form of tryouts.

As the only team to make commitments to players in advance, DI (with rare exception) has each new season’s roster set almost before the old has finished. Tryout participation is required for DI players, but as team captain Matt Sherry and alternate captain Lindsay LeBlanc both explained, the process is more about depth chart arrangement and finding chemistry than winning a place on the team.

There is no such security for DII and DIII. Throughout two and a half weeks in early August, 100 or so hockey hopefuls lace up their skates to contend for coveted spots on the Flames DII and DIII rosters.

Tryouts, though open to anyone, are fiercely competitive.

“The majority of those trying out have significant experience in hockey,” head coach Kirk Handy said. “Those [that don’t], you know — we don’t discourage them, but we give them the reality check. All three teams are quality teams.”

The coaching staffs observe the tryout, comprised of daily game-style scrimmages, and evaluate participants, shuffle rosters and settle on nightly cuts collaboratively.

“We try and help each other out to make sure that we’ve identified the proper talent at the proper level, so we work hand-in-hand together,” Handy said.

Corporate knowledge of the teams is vital to overall program success, as players may be called up to fill gaps in cases of injury or ineligibility. DIII captain Brandon Cockburn and teammate Kyle Burman, for example, both got DI ice time in the past season; just two of such players in a list Handy ticked off.

Occasionally (though very rarely), vertical movement between teams occurs during the tryout itself. Players may grind their way onto a higher team or line; or, in the case that recruited DI talent fills their roster spot, be moved to a more active role on the next team down. Some players opt to “play down” to gain more ice time or simply better fit their schedule and commitment level.

With so many factors to take into account and more qualified athletes than roster slots, earning a spot — and deciding who does and does not — is difficult. Teams are arranged one at a time, smallest to largest, DI to DII.

The athletic and administrative strain shared by players and coaches of all three teams readies them to start the season strong.

“It lets you get to know all the guys on a different level when you go through challenges,” Hughes said. “It brings everyone together, going hard every morning and throughout all of the tryouts. Everyone’s battling together, so you develop a good respect for one another on and off the ice, too.”

At season’s first puck drop, the weeks of preseason pressure pay off. The Flames hockey program, from first line DI to fourth line DIII, are physically and mentally prepared as a program for another year on the ice.

Hockey Night In Lynchburg