NORTH RICHLAND HILLS, Texas – Their season ended in the blink of an eye during Game Six of the Berry Conference Finals on April 23rd, when Wichita’s Matt Robinson snuck in unassisted and scored 4:44 into sudden death overtime, giving the Thunder a 3-2 victory and a trip to the Ray Miron President’s Cup Championship series. Now, less than six months later, nine members of that Texas Brahmas squad have returned to the NYTEX Sports Centre, joined by 21 other players who are fighting for 18 spots on the final roster which will be determined after a week-long training camp culminating in two exhibition games this weekend against the Allen Americans. The team, which will return to their roots this season and reclaim their former name – the Fort Worth Brahmas – is in the process of completing a sale to a local ownership group and suffice it to say – there’s a lot of unfinished business on the agenda. There was a slight sense of deja-vu for head coach Dan Wildfong after that disappointing Monday night in April.
“I think if you look at it historically, in my first year as a coach, we came really close to making it (to the championship series),” Wildfong said. “We lost to Colorado in Game Seven up there and I think the guys got a little bit of the taste – how close they were and you know, how hard it was to get there. Then the next year, we brought in a lot of returning players and I think that gave them the extra push.”
“It’s been really tough, but you know, it’s adversity – it’s like anything,” he said. “You know, I lost some key players that were gonna come here – but at the end of the day it didn’t happen. I think the lockout really helps us this year as there’s a lot of players out there but it has been a really tough summer, really tough. Not just for me but for everyone in the organization from top to bottom.” Despite that adversity, Wildfong, who is easily one of the best recruiting coaches in the Central Hockey League, has once again brought in a group of talented propects to compete for the openings on the 2012-13 roster. This includes a number of rookies, which mirrors his strategy last year – a strategy that paid off in the long run.
“We’re going to be young again,” Wildfong said. “I liked how we went young last year. We had a nice mix of a couple of older guys that helped lead the young guys. I’m impressed with some of these young guys so far.”
They include goaltenders Jonathan LaRose, Kristofer Westblom and Daniel Clarke who will compete for the number two spot behind Brad Fogal, who joined the Brahmas on March 26th and quickly made a name for himself as he took over for an over-worked Mark Guggenberger. Defensive prospects include Richard Dart, Paul Kruceba, Dustin Korlak, Mike Baran, Cody Hamilton, Ryan Barlock and Chad Huttel. On offense, Wildfong has brought in Tomas Klempa, Shawn Skelly, Kevin Willer, Daniel Barczuk, Ian Boots, Mark Thorburn, Brian Yanovitch, Stuart Jacobson, Justin Fox, Colin McIntosh and Paul Lee. Lee, a 23-year-old rookie forward from Garden City, N.Y. who recently completed his collegiate career at Dartmouth has enjoyed his time in camp thus far and has won praise for his strong work ethic. “It’s obviously a new experience,” Lee said. “I haven’t gone through anything quite like this. In college we had two-a-days, but you’re not fighting for a job as you are here. There’s some long days, but you’re learning a lot and just trying to go out there and work hard and make sure you get the systems down and make sure you know how to play the team game that they want to play here.”
After just four days together, Wildfong has been pleased with how the group has progressed but says the real test will come this weekend.