2011-10-28 / Sports

Aviators Begin Training Camp With Title Hopes

By Robby Schwach

Coach Rob Miller explains some of the finer points to his charges. Pictures by Robby Schwach. Coach Rob Miller explains some of the finer points to his charges. Pictures by Robby Schwach. If you happened to catch any of the recent sessions at training camp, you might have seen a few familiar faces among the 2011-2012 Brooklyn Aviators pro hockey team.

Over on the side of the center line was Rob Miller, the team’s head coach, the only guy on the ice wearing a baseball cap. Digging in the corners with reckless abandon and hustle outmatched by no one else was Jesse Felten. Deft passes between Andrew Scampoli and Casey Mignone proved they were back and ready to play.

K.C. Timmons, a former NHL draft pick and last year’s team captain, was easy to spot, calmly playing defense, making all the right plays at the right time, and acting as an example for the younger guys. Stephen Obelnicki zooms by, we know he’s back. Jarrett Rush was perhaps the easiest to spot, literally standing head and shoulders above everyone else. Rush was new to the team at this time last year but ended the season winning accolades as the Federal Hockey League’s Defenseman of the Year.

If the Aviators are to mesh this year, it will be up to returning veterans like Jesse Felten (right) to lead the way for newcomers like Chris Jones (left). If the Aviators are to mesh this year, it will be up to returning veterans like Jesse Felten (right) to lead the way for newcomers like Chris Jones (left). You might have also noticed that the team has consolidated their home territory, calling themselves the Brooklyn Aviators, instead of the New York Aviators. Last year’s squad started off behind the eight ball before riding a 21-game winning streak to the playoffs, losing in the final round to a strong team from Akwesasne, Canada, that featured former NHL-er Pierre Dagenais.

With these few exceptions and one or two others, even regular attendees to Aviator games last year would be hard pressed to identify anyone else, especially without help from the Aviators’ staff.

Gone is league MVP, goalie Kevin Druce, off to a career in law enforcement in Canada. Gone is the team’s leading scorer and first team all-star, Matt Puntureri, signed by a new team and certain rival, the New Jersey Outlaws. Gone are fan favorites, sniper Angelo Serse, defenseman Nick Kuqali, and forwards Mike Thomson and Chris Holmes. All are playing elsewhere with Kuqali last heard from in Knoxville, Tennesee while playing for the 2010-2011 Southern Professional Hockey League Champions, the Mississippi Surge (not exactly a “if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere,” kind of place).

Minor league hockey can sometimes seem like a revolving door to fans, as constant exits by players who leave to play elsewhere or leave the game entirely are replaced by eager “new guys” who may not stay long. It is only after the team decides to invest the few bucks to produce a name tag for the back of your jersey would a player realize that he might be expected to stick around for awhile.

On a positive note, if you were still watching training camp at this point, you’d be pleasantly surprised by some of these new guys. New goalie Tommy Lee looked solid, after spending time with three teams in the SPHL last year. Lee was 10-5, allowing 47 goals in 15 games, while making 476 saves for teams in Alabama, Florida and Tennessee. Pete Dundovich, an able backup in net to Druce last year, looks to fill the same role this year, although his FHL experience will prove valuable.

Noticeable, too, are newcomers Chris Jones (the 6’4” forward comes in with four years experience playing for York College, scoring 35 goals in 99 games, acting as team captain in his last year there), Jordan Bernier (forward with 23 points in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League from 2008-11 and only 20 years old), and Andrew Owsiak (center with 42 points along the way during his recent four years at Dartmouth University).

Fans of the Brooklyn Aces, an older incarnation of the Aviators, might have noticed Chris Ferrazzoli, a local guy (Floral Park) who scored 65 points in 35 games for the Aces’ rival – the Jersey Rockhoppers in 2008-09, and returned from a mid-season promotion to help beat the Aces in the league’s final games. Ferrazzoli bounced around the SPHL, too, before an injury sidelined him last year. His leadership, playmaking skills and seniority should mesh nicely with some of his younger linemates, and endear him to fans looking for a replacement for Puntureri in their hearts.

The second year of the Federal Hockey league proves to be more challenging than last year’s initial season, old teams getting better, and with the addition of new teams in Danville, Ohio, New Jersey, and Vermont, and an old team that has moved to Cape Cod. Coach Miller seems optimistic but guarded. “We should do well,” he said during a break between recent two-a-day on-ice practice sessions. “We may run into rough patches, but then we’ll make changes, make things better …keep things on an even keel.” Miller also dismisses the geographic challenges. “We have more travel, sure, but the preparation for games is the same. … we just travel a little further.”

Miller’s off-ice preparation has been rough. As a coach, he’s responsible for the on-ice product. But wearing the hat of Team President, he’s got much more responsibility. He recently spent time at many SPHL training camps, hoping to catch a cast-off that would work well in Brooklyn after a player was dropped by another team. He constantly works the phones and consults with super scout Dave Smith to evaluate potential team members, hoping to sell them on the unique opportunity to play in New York.

Fan favorite Jesse Felten doesn’t seem to be worried. “I don’t know what to expect (this season), with eight teams, many that seem to be better than last year, but I’m pretty excited.” Felten seems to appreciate the change of pace that hockey brings each year. He spent his off-season working with horses on his parents’ farm in Wisconsin, but he looks forward to returning to play for the Aviators, and to his off-season home in Rockaway. The team rents a house and apartments in the Rockaways each year. Felten likes the boardwalk area and has taken a liking to local places like Bon Appetit (Beach 129 Street) and Pickles and Pies (Beach 116 Street). “Every year here, we seem to get a better group of guys. … and we’re bonding well,” says Felten.

Newcomer Jordan Bernier has also been impressed with his new Rockaway digs, although he had been here only five days when The Wave spoke with him. “I got a new friend … the Ocean. … this is a dream come true for me, I’m a water guy,” Bernier said slowly, avoiding the French language native to his home in Montreal. Bernier comes off some serious injuries to his knee and hips in recent years and knows he hasn’t been able to reach his potential.

“It’s been hard psychologically,” he said, referring to the injuries. “I’m ready to do my best to achieve my goals… I just want the [chance] to do my best and go up [progress],” he said.

Owsiak, from Moose Jaw, Saskatoon, Canada (every decent hockey reporter knows Moose Jaw, Kamloops, and Medicine Hat, right?) comes to Brooklyn off a high from last year’s Dartmouth squad. He lists his overtime goal against Harvard last year, which vaulted Dartmouth into the ECAC championships, as his greatest moment in hockey so far. The Aviators may need some of that kind of magic this season.

Ticket information for the Aviators is available on the team’s web site at www.BrooklynAviators.com. After playing their first two games on the road (Maine on Thursday, October 27 and Cape Cod on Friday, October 28) the Aviators’ first home game is scheduled for Saturday, October 29 at 7:05 p.m. against the New Jersey Outlaws. The Wave intends to cover its local pro hockey team weekly.

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