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NHL camp experience helps Rybinski, Ross, and Thunderbirds

After returning from Philadelphia Flyers camp, Roddy Ross set a career high for saves in Thunderbirds season opener. (Brian Liesse/T-Birds)

KENT – For the final two periods of the Seattle Thunderbirds opening night win against Kamloops Saturday night, goalie Roddy Ross was near perfect and he ended the night credited with a career-best 50 saves. Ross playing well isn’t a surprise, he did it last year after joining the Thunderbirds. Saturday was his first game back after participating in an NHL camp with the Philadelphia Flyers, and he played with an extra tick of confidence.

It was a confidence that comes from being drafted by an NHL team and putting on the Flyers sweater.

“Once you go there you feel really dialled in, coming back here,” Ross said prior to practice on Wednesday. “That helped for me throughout the weeks of practice, from what I learned from the goalie coaches there. It helped me.”

Ross wasn’t alone.

Henrik Rybinski picked up an assist on Saturday and centered a line that contributed for a pair of goals and a good amount of puck possession. Rybinski had returned to the Thunderbirds early in the week after taking part in the Florida Panthers training camp.

He was playing center, a position that he hadn’t played in over a year and looked strong.

“It definitely gave me a lot of confidence,” Rybinski said about NHL camp. “I thought I played really well and it gave me a boost. The game felt slower on the weekend and I think it’s because I’m feeling confident.”

The Western Hockey League is a development league and for players like Ross and Rybinski, being drafted by an NHL team gave them not just confidence, but a glimpse at what life at the next level is like.

It can be an eye-opener, seeing how veteran NHL players conduct themselves, prepare, and how good they are. Learning that helps the prospects who come back to the WHL for further development.

“They see how the big boys do it,” Thunderbirds head coach Matt O’Dette said. “It motivates them, it lights a fire and it changes their professional approach a little bit. They see how those guys operate and know that what we’re saying corelates. They get to see it first-hand, what we’re trying to tell them, and they come back with a different level of professionalism.”

As high as the talent is in the WHL, it’s a whole new world at the next level.

Playing against the best players in the world can have a positive impact on an 18-year-old prospect. It sharpens the skill and turns up their urgency.

With Ross and Rybinski back in Seattle, that will help not only their production but have positive results for the Thunderbirds. Prospects benefit from the experience on and off the ice.

“Taking care of your body,” Rybinski said about one of the lessons learned. “You have to make sure you’re 100-percent. With the cooldowns and warm-ups. Also, just having poise and making plays with the puck. You can’t just be scrambling.”

As a goalie, Ross noticed the uptick in the quality of shots he faced in camp with the Flyers. Everyone in the NHL can shoot.

He made 50 saves Saturday, including a couple on ten-bell chances, but they’re not the same as stopping pucks off the sticks of NHL players. Ross, who never seems rattled, says he just kept it simple while in camp.

“The shots are a lot harder,” Ross said. “When you come here it’s a little different with the shots. But, it’s still hockey and you’re still trying to stop the puck.”

There’s a scene in the 1988 baseball comedy ‘Bull Durham’ when Crash Davis reveals to his new teammates that he once spent some time in the major leagues. His minor league mates instantly are drawn in, asking questions about what it was like.

When Ross and Rybinski returned, their younger teammates, all who have the same NHL dreams, did the same.

“There’s a lot of questions,” Rybinski said. “Guys were asking, which is good. They all want to get there. I let them know and try to prepare them for when they do get there.”

Having a teammate in the stall next to you who has been to an NHL camp can be a motivator.

It brings home how close the WHL players are to playing at the next level. O’Dette says that the paths that Ross and Rybinski took is another big motivator for the younger players on his team.

Neither player was in the WHL on New Year’s Day but once in Seattle, flourished and were rewarded by being drafted.

“They haven’t come in the front door after being highly touted from a young age,” O’Dette added. “They’ve done it the hard way with perseverance and determination. It shows our young guys that it could happen to them too.”

Seattle has young and promising talent and the NHL could come calling for a handful of Thunderbirds over the next couple of drafts. Ross and Rybinski will be examples for those players, as well as provide much needed production on the ice this season.