J.P. Hoornstra, The Sun
The black-and-white Kings T-shirt and black shorts, the same gear every training camp participant slips into once they leave the ice, seem to fit C.J. Stretch well. He probably wouldn't complain if they didn't.
For Stretch, who was at times a healthy scratch with the Reign during his first full season of professional hockey, getting invited to his first NHL training camp is special enough.
"I wasn't expecting anything," the 22-year-old center said. "I just thought I would go to the Reign camp. I'm super excited."
Stretch said he received a call from his agent, Al Roy, on Wednesday with the good news. Two days later, he was taking a physical with the rest of the Kings players.
It probably helped that Stretch lives in Irvine and had been skating locally with several NHL players the previous month. His experience with the Reign, the Kings' ECHL affiliate, might have helped too.
More than anything, Stretch was helped by the fact the Kings' training camp is huge - 64 players, not including holdout Drew Doughty. This allows head coach Terry Murray to split the squad into three groups. Stretch is one of 12 players in camp on a tryout with no NHL experience, and each represents more than just an "extra body" for practice.
"We get a read as to where they are, if it's someone we should pursue and sign," Murray said, "or go back to junior or if he's overage, ready to turn pro, does he go to an East Coast League team or an
AHL team? With the way the pool is today, I think it's just a great opportunity to get free looks at players and the players are excited about the opportunity."
That's putting it mildly.
Stretch has had more experience with NHL players than perhaps most ECHL rookies. In Anaheim, he skated with the Ducks' Bobby Ryan, Cam Fowler and George Parros. He also participated in the San Jose Sharks' rookie camp in 2009.
But Stretch knew from the outset this camp would be different.
"It was like 8:30 (a.m. Friday) and I didn't think there were going to be any fans out there," he said. "The whole place was filled. Right when we started, they were all cheering. I didn't think that was going to happen."
Stretch is getting a free hotel stay and a daily per diem allowance courtesy of the Kings. As far as fans can see, he's doing the same drills as any NHL player in camp, but what he isn't getting is the same attention an NHL player would behind the scenes.
"The interaction comes on the ice," Murray said. "We're trying to correct and make changes, spend time with those guys to get through the drills. If we see something's not working right, we'll spend time and talk to that player. We're not pulling video right now and reviewing their practice, trying to make those corrections."
For Stretch, the practical value in the experience comes from watching NHL players at work - "This is like tic-tac-toe, everything has to be perfect," he said - and improving his physical conditioning in the process.
Once the Kings release him from the tryout contract, Stretch knows there's no excuses for him not to be in top shape - an issue for him at times last season - when the Reign camp begins.
Of course, Stretch would rather be in Manchester, N.H., training with the Kings' American Hockey League affiliate Monarchs when the Reign open camp.
By showing his skills alongside NHL players, his chances of that only increase.
"That's obviously what I want. I want to get to the next level," he said. "I have to have a good camp here. We'll see what happens after that."