By Jim Alexander, The Press-Enterprise
RIVERSIDE - They showed up at IceTown this weekend from throughout the Inland Empire, and from as far away as Cincinnati and Edmonton. They paid for the privilege: $150 to sign up, bring your own equipment, arrange for your own transportation and, if necessary, lodging.
They are, in the very best sense of the term, rink rats. And no matter the variance in ability or experience, the guys who showed up for the Ontario Reign's open tryout camp were united in one respect: their passion for hockey.
"That's half (or) three-quarters of the reason that anybody's here," said Gabriel Andre, the guy from Edmonton. "You have a dream and you want to achieve it, you want to see it out, see it come to fruition."
It was an eclectic group that pushed its way through a practice and scrimmage Friday night and another practice and scrimmage Saturday morning.
There were players with pro experience, like 26-year-old Mike Thomson, of La Habra. And older guys, like 44-year-old goalie Terry Wheaton -- the goaltending coach for the Junior Reign kids program, based at IceTown -- and 34-year-old Schon Garcia, of Fontana, living their own dream even if it were just for a couple of days.
Jack Kim, of Los Angeles, had played for the Korean national team. Andre had played in Australia, and his other athletic claim to fame came in something called "downhill skating." Santa Monica's Jason Kitchin played in the 2007 Winter Deaflympics.
And there were locals such as goalie Joshua Redmond, of Riverside, and forwards Nick Poynter, of Lake Elsinore, Ontario's Christopher Fuertsch and San Jacinto's Josh Newton, brother of the Ducks' Jake Newton. All had come up through the region's far-flung youth hockey circuit, one of SoCal's best-kept secrets, and all had their own dreams in sight.
Some of this crop, maybe one player or maybe a handful, will get invitations to the Reign's main training camp, which begins Wednesday in Ontario. Like other ECHL teams, the Reign gets a handful of players at best from its NHL affiliate, the Kings, and fills out its roster with free agents.
"The first year (2008), we had five or six guys we brought (from the tryouts) to the regular camp," Reign coach Karl Taylor said. "Itan Chavira played some games during the season for us. Terry Wheaton backed up for us, and he's out here again. I love that guy.
"They could be fill-ins. Or it could be an extended opportunity for a few kids to get a longer look and have an opportunity to skate with our team. It doesn't mean they're going to make our team, but it's an opportunity to just see, feel and taste it."
And to understand just how hard it can be. By the end of Saturday's scrimmage, with thin rosters and individuals getting a lot of ice time, some players looked like they were skating in quicksand.
"They wanted to see if you could back it up," Redmond said. "A lot of guys are definitely out of shape, including myself, and they definitely want to see what we can handle out there, who's really willing to dig deep and pull it out."
The ones who impressed? They'll be on the ice Wednesday in Ontario.
The others? They'll have some stories to tell -- and some will be right back here next year.
"You've got to have something to shoot for," Garcia said.