PELHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — While the Birmingham Bulls are figuring out their roster in the first days of training camp, they are impressed with their group so far.
The Bulls held their second training camp skate Wednesday morning as they prepared for their season opener against the Huntsville Havoc on Oct. 20. They had 18 players participating, including three goaltenders. Eight skaters who they signed in the offseason are in ECHL training camps, like forwards Troy MacTavish and Jordan Martin.
Birmingham head coach Craig Simchuk said the club possesses a good mix of returners and newcomers. With it not being a large camp, Simchuk said skaters are receiving a lot of reps and described it as a player-friendly camp.
“You want to see how these guys are because there’s a lot of guys who we’ve never seen in person,” Simchuk said. “We’ve watched film on them, we’ve done homework and research, talking to coaches, agents, other players, but we also want to see firsthand these guys are in front of you.”
The bench boss said he and Bulls associate head coach Kevin Kerr are analyzing how players think the game and use their skill sets. They are taking steps into making sure skaters are integrated into systems and structure so that everyone is on the same page.
Forward Michael Gillespie is back for his second season with the club. He led the Bulls with 27 goals and 60 points in 2022-23 despite battling a hip injury. The New York native received hip surgery in the offseason and spent most of his rehab in the Birmingham area. Gillespie was cleared to skate about a month ago.
The Bulls fell two games short of their first President’s Cup championship last season, and the franchise expects the Southern Professional Hockey League to be tougher in 2023-24. Gillespie said the coaches do a good job of taking their time implementing the X’s and O’s.
“We just have to go attack it and execute the systems the right way,” Gillespie said. “Nothing’s won in the first week of the season, in the first month, so it’s going to take some time, obviously, but doing the things that we did last year and building off that. Got a bunch of hungry guys coming in, returners that were in that situation. We have a sour taste in our mouth still, and we’re just going to wait and just keep pushing at it and see where we can get to.”
As for between the pipes, Austin Lotz and Hayden Stewart are back with the club. The Bulls also picked up goaltender Troy Kobryn, who made his professional debut last season with the ECHL’s Norfolk Admirals after spending his NCAA career at Merrimack College and American International College.
Lotz joined Birmingham for the 2019-20 season, while Stewart came to the Magic City the following campaign. In the 2022-23 regular season, Lotz competed in 33 games compared to Stewart’s 22. The goaltenders posted near identical goals against averages, with Lotz’s at a 2.73 and Stewart’s at a 2.71.
“We’ve got a good relationship with each other,” Lotz said. “We support each other and push each other to the limit. So yeah, I mean there’s not really another guy that I’d rather share the net with, you know what I mean? We got a special relationship going.”
The Bulls will compete in an exhibition contest at the Pensacola Ice Flyers Friday night. It will be the one chance for Birmingham skaters to show who they are against an opponent before opening night versus Huntsville at the Pelham Civic Complex.
Simchuk said the Bulls will have their opening-night roster set Oct. 18, and the Bulls can carry 19 players. Simchuk said there won’t be a ton of changes but there may be a few players coming back from the ECHL and other players who they might cut.
Though the President’s Cup Finals won’t happen until April, the Bulls are making decisions with hoisting the cup in mind after seeing how close they were last season.
“We didn’t finish the job, so that’s why a lot of guys wanted to talk in the summer,” Simchuk said. “They wanted to come back straight here. Some of our top players are coming straight to camp here because they know what we have and what we’re building towards. The attitude, the buzz, the excitement is definitely up here.”