BLOOMINGTON — After an offseason filled with change, the players on the Central Illinois Flying Aces have used the first two weeks of training camp to bond and adapt to new coach Mike Watt’s playing style.
“I think the team this year has already bought into the system,” said veteran defenseman Simon Butala. “I think once the season gets going we’re going to be picking up in midseason form.”
“Everybody’s really comfortable playing with each other and knows each other well enough that we can trust each other on the ice, which is huge,” added Notre Dame-bound forward Cameron Burke.
For now, the ice where they forge that trust won’t be the rink at Grossinger Motors Arena. The team announced Tuesday the first two home games slated for Oct. 13-14 have been rescheduled as work continues on upgrades to the city-owned venue’s dasher board system.
“We are pleased with the progress by the City of Bloomington and VenuWorks to find solutions to repair the current dasher board and glass system to meet USA Hockey and USHL standards,” chief operating officer Brendan Kelly said in a news release. “We want to ensure that the world-class players of the Flying Aces and the entire USHL are competing in a premier facility that provides the safest and best playing conditions.”
As part of a two-phase project, new protective glass is being fitted on the existing dashers to bring the system up to league standards. The second phase, installation of a new dasher system, will take place later this season.
The Oct. 13 date with Cedar Rapids is still being rescheduled. The Oct. 14 game against Green Bay has been changed to a road contest. With no other dates affected as yet, the home opener currently would be Oct. 28 against Dubuque.
Regardless of when they make their home debut, the Aces believe they could have the makings of a championship-caliber squad.
“I think we’re going to be a fun team to watch … we can really get up and go,” said Watt, who particularly noted the offensive abilities of his defensemen. “Our whole D corps is very, very mobile where they can get up and be to where they’re a second or third layer to the rush.
“We’ve got a multitude of guys who can put the puck in the back of the net, where I think we relied on a small pack of players in the past. … We want to be able to come in and attack teams in waves.”
The team spent the first week of training camp at Adrian College in Michigan, where the players worked through a grueling practice schedule and formed a more tight-knit group.
“It was tough. We practiced twice a day every day for six days,” said Burke. “Everybody was going hard, playing really intense. It was hard but it was a lot of fun, a great team-building week.”
“Everyone worked hard and everyone learned the systems,” said Butala. “I think that’s what brought us so close together and that’s why we started off hot.”
That hot start includes two victories — although only one counted as an official preseason contest. After two full intrasquad scrimmages, the Aces played an exhibition at Muskegon and posted a 4-1 win. On Saturday, a big second period sparked Central Illinois to a 5-2 preseason win over the defending champion Chicago Steel in Geneva.
“I thought the exhibition win we especially looked great,” said Burke. “We started off slow against Chicago, but we definitely picked it up in the second half and it got to a point where I think we dominated in the third period.”
The Aces wrap up the preseason this weekend with three games over three days at the USHL Fall Classic at the UPMC Lemieux Center in suburban Pittsburgh. They face the Team USA under-18 squad Friday afternoon, followed by Madison on Saturday and Tri-City on Sunday.
“That’s where we’ll really see how teams are and where we compare with the other teams,” said Burke. “We feel really confident right now and think we can take it to these teams in Pittsburgh."
Watt has 29 players still on the roster and will need to cut down to 23 before the team opens the season Oct. 7 at Youngstown.
“Any decision you make right now is tough. Everybody that’s here is deserving to play in this league, but with the number crunch we can’t keep everyone,” he said. “It’s nice to have these tough decisions because I don’t think we’ve had them in the past. But we do have some decisions that will have to be made after Pittsburgh.”
Butala already senses plenty of good vibes around the program as its fourth season nears.
“Everything is so positive with the coaching staff and the changes,” he said. “It’s all been a positive experience; everyone’s been happy and we’ve been like a family now.”