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Thunderbirds open training camp with grueling off ice fitness testing

Seattle's Matthew Wedman performs Goblin Squats during the Thunderbirds fitness testing Monday. (Brian Liesse/T-Birds)

KENT – The Seattle Thunderbirds caught their first break of the season Monday afternoon. Instead of late August scorching heat, the weather in the Puget Sound area was mild, in time for dry land fitness testing. Over 70 players, from veterans, rookies, to free-agent hopefuls, hit the track at Highline Community College to test what kind of shape they are in on the eve of training camp.

Of course, feeling the heat is all relative.

“This is hot for me, coming from Calgary, but I’m glad it’s not any hotter,” a winded defenseman Tyrel Bauer said after completing his mile run.

Monday was check-in day for the Thunderbirds. The players arrived at the accesso ShoWare Center, took mug shots, and changed into work out gear. They broke into four groups to begin a gauntlet of fitness tests.

An immediate reinforcement that hockey season is here and summer fun is over.

“It’s probably my least favorite thing of the year,” veteran Matthew Wedman said after checking in on Monday.

Head coach Matt O’Dette was at the track, along with his staff, armed with clipboards and stopwatches. Athletic trainer Phil Varney was on hand with plenty of water for exhausted players, most of whom laid on the infield grass to recover. There were wind sprints and a grueling shuttle run before a couple of laps around the track.

Back in the arena, there was weight lifting and other strength tests.

The fitness testing is one part of the evaluation of these players to see who is going to make the roster. The players head home each summer with the expectation that they will train in the off-season. Monday the results of that training was revealed.

It’s more than checking up on the players. It’s a starting point for the season to see what shape each guy is in and where there are deficits that need to be corrected as training camp and the preseason progress.

“It’s something that we all prepare for during the off-season,” Bauer said. “We know it’s coming so obviously we want to do our best at it. We’ve got to go in with a positive attitude. We’re hockey players and it’s what you’ve got to do. It’s what we are trained to do.”

Growing up playing youth and minor hockey, many young players don’t have to focus on fitness.

As they progress up the hockey ladder, it becomes more important and can separate good from great players. For the rookies, it can be an eye-opener to come into camp and see what the fitness expectations are to play in the WHL.

“It was different,” rookie Kai Uchacz said Monday. “It’s a big challenge and hard on the body at the start of camp. We didn’t do a lot of that back home.”

This will be Uchacz’s second camp with Seattle, so he had some inkling about what waited for him when he arrived this week. The 2018 first-round draft pick has big expectations this season and knows that what he does off the ice, will help him on it.

Bauer, 17, was where Uchacz is, last year — heading into his rookie season in the WHL. He flourished on the Thunderbirds blue line and now is beginning a campaign that should see him drafted during June’s NHL Draft.

He wants to play well on the ice and to do that, he has to have the proper conditioning.

“You always want to be at your best,” he said. “But it never really gets to you how important off-season training is until you play your first year in the league and you want to get drafted. It helps you find another gear in yourself.”

Hockey players are hyper-competitive and fitness testing is one more chance to compete. It’s a chance to see how you measure up, and of course, to chirp your teammates and buddies.

“Everybody is pushing to get high numbers,” Wedman said. “At the banquet upstairs after its all said and done, they announce the winners and give a little prize. It’s always pretty fun. I usually win the high jump, the vertical jump. I’m feeling pretty strong about that.”

Bauer, Uchacz, and Wedman all felt that the strength conditioning part of Monday was where they would shine the most.

Nobody was excited about running.

“Running is not something I would go out and do for fun,” Bauer said. “But it is stuff I do to prepare for events like this and to keep my cardio in good shape.”

The hard part of camp may have come on day one, but all the players now have to find a way to recover in time for a week of scrimmages. The legs will undoubtedly be burning after Monday’s workouts, but they’ll have to put that behind them as they hit the ice at 9 a.m. Tuesday morning.

“You’ve got to eat right and take the proper things for your body to recover,” Bauer said. “That’s what gets players to the next level and through camps like these.”

Jarret Tyszka will not return to Thunderbirds this season

Thunderbirds general manager Bil La Forge told ESPN Seattle Monday that defenseman Jarret Tyszka will not return to play this year.

Tyszka, 20, was Seattle’s first-round pick in the 2014 Bantam Draft and along with Wedman, was one of two holdovers from the Thunderbirds 2017 WHL Championship team. That spring, Tyszka was drafted in the fifth round of the NHL Draft by the Montreal Canadiens.

Montreal chose not to sign Tyszka by this year’s deadline, and he became a free agent. He had a rough start to last season after being injured in a summer camp with the Canadiens. That forced him to miss most of the first half of 2018-2019.

When he returned to the lineup, he provided Seattle’s young defense with some stability and in 41 games he tied a career-high in goals with eight while racking up 30 points. Tyszka was invited to take part in the Dallas Stars development camp this past June but was not offered a contract.

La Forge added that Tyszka had decided to attend college instead of returning for one more season in the WHL. In 213 regular-season games with Seattle, he scored 25 goals and 101 points.

Seattle now has five over-agers on its roster. That includes Wedman, Andrej Kukuca, Jaxan Kaluski, Conner Bruggen-Cate, and former Brandon Wheat King Baron Thompson. La Forge will have to pair that list down to three before the league deadline in mid-October.