Last year, Niagara forward Eric Cooley attended Toronto Maple Leafs development camp, and learned what it takes to be a professional hockey player.
This year, at Buffalo Sabres development camp, Cooley was able to put some of those lessons into action.
“It was nice to get my feet wet last year,” Cooley said. “Toronto was a good start to get a taste for things, and this year, I knew what to expect coming in. Each organization does things differently. It was nice to come here and get a different perspective on things. It’s been a great week.”
Playing and practicing at the home rink of crosstown rival Canisius brought a level of comfort to the camp, Cooley said.
“Being close to home and school makes it a little easier,” he said, acknowledging that it felt a little strange being on the rink where the Purple Eagles lost the Atlantic Hockey championship to AIC back in March.
Last season, Cooley was third on the Purple Eagles in scoring, with nine goals and 27 points in 41 games. In addition to Cooley, forward and AHC Rookie of the Year Ludwig Stenlund attended New York Islanders development camp, and team captain Noah Delmas attended Carolina Hurricanes camp.
Niagara head coach Jason Lammers said the experiences Cooley, along with Delmas and Stendlund, are having at the development camps will help the team grow. Last season, the team incorporated some of the on-and-off ice ideas Cooley and Delmas brought back from Maple Leafs camp, and Lammers anticipates this season being the same.
“We have players coaching players, players coaching coaches, and coaches coaching players,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity to get new ideas.”
As a player, Cooley is working on his play without the puck, Lammers said. He’s been studying NHL players like Boston Bruins forward Brad Marchand, working to cut off players and create transitions for his team. Academically, he’s done well, Lammers said, landing on Atlantic Hockey’s All Academic Team.
“As a student, we hear great things about him from his professors,” he said. “He’s focused, driven, organized, and he makes things happen.”
Newly-hired Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger said that while the players weren’t evaluated during the camp, he liked what he saw from the group as a whole. Friday night, coaches took groups of five or six players out, Krueger said, in an effort to get the know the players.
“We’ve been working with them as people,” he said. “Our mental coaches have been with them, our strength and conditioning coaches, and then teaching them are our hockey development. Coaches have spent a lot of time with them. And there’s been a lot of one on one interaction, too.”
While he enjoyed the week of practice at the camp, Cooley said the highlight was the French Connection Three-on-Three tournament held Saturday afternoon. Cooley scored a goal, and had several other plays during the games, drawing notice from the crowd for his swift skating and nifty stick work.
“This was the icing on the cake, you know, after working all week and then coming out, everyone playing free, playing their own little game, showing off their style,” he said. “It was fast paced and fun.”
Heading into next season, Cooley has high expectations for the Purple Eagles, especially after the way the season ended last year with the overtime loss to AIC. It’s a “confidence thing,” he said, and the team knows they can win.
“I think we’re all hungry and ready to get started,” Cooley said.
Having been to his second NHL development camp in two years, Cooley is looking forward to share the knowledge he’s gained with his teammates, especially the incoming freshmen and sophomores. He’s also excited about the direction Lammers is taking the program.
“Coach Lammers has been with me both years at Niagara, and truly taken over the program,” he said. “We lost four guys, so going into next year should be a great season. And I give a lot of credit to him and what he’s done. He’s really developed, obviously. We have three guys going to camps. The team continues to trend upward, and it’s going to be a good thing to be a part of.”