WEST VALLEY CITY Ever since the Utah Grizzlies joined the ECHL, they've watched as teams with NHL/AHL affiliations won championships, while they, as independents, had trouble sometimes putting enough players on the ice due to injuries.
Coach Jason Christie is hopeful that 2007-08 will be different for his club that opened training camp Sunday morning at Acord Ice Center.
The Grizzlies are now part of the NHL New York Islanders system and are a feeder club for the AHL Bridgeport Sound Tigers.
On Utah's training-camp roster are five players who spent last month in the Islanders' training camp (forwards Justin Bourne, Christian Gaudet, Tyler Haskins and Jason Pitton and defenseman Martin Frechette) and a dozen who opened the fall in the Sound Tigers' camp, including goalie Mike Mole.
Among the 33 players in Utah camp are 10 who have played with the Grizzlies before (captain Travis Rycroft, leading scorer Ryan Kinasewich, all-star Andy Sertich, West Valley native D.J. Jelitto and Ian Forbes, Garett Cameron, Brandon Tidball, Grant Clafton, James Sanford and Eric Nelson).
Having the affiliation gives everybody hope, said Christie, who coached the Peoria Rivermen for six years and saw the NHL connection work there.
"I've had this kind of situation in years past, and it's good to see how hungry kids are day in and day out," he said.
And everyone on the team is always aware that NHL personnel is lurking.
"With these young kids, they're obviously going to be getting watched, but a guy without a contract might have a big game and might get that opportunity, too, and that's a plus for the guys without contracts," Christie said.
"That was the tough thing last year. A lot of kids didn't think they were going nowhere."
While Christie has a new assistant coach, Kevin Colley, a 27-year-old former Islander, he said New York won't try to heavily influence the team other than hoping its prospects will play. Utah will change a few things about the system it plays, but Christie says it's minor tweaking.
"It's pretty similar to what we've had in the past. We're going to be similar to their system just so (youngsters are) not too much out of place when they do go up, but other than that, the (Islanders') system is drilling in winning hockey games and developing the kids.
"Of course they want their kids to develop, (but) they're not going to say, 'You have to do this, you have to do that.' The players that we have down here, we're going to want them in the lineup anyway. They're young. They're hungry," Christie said.
And any change could be welcome. Utah finished 24th in a 25-team league last season, 22-42-8, and missed the playoffs."No question we want a better season than we had last year," said Christie.