Gillette Wild forward Adam Pecht showed up to a voluntary off-ice workout sporting a silk shirt showing a bear holding a fish in its jaws.
The five-year veteran hockey player joked around, intentionally bumping into teammates and running his mouth between every exercise Thursday night in Gillette.
The massive grizzly bear on his chest is his spirit animal. Or maybe it’s the fish. He picked up the conversation piece at Walmart a while ago, while hanging out with teammates Bobby Solari and Foster Boerman, who aged out of the tier-III junior hockey program last year.
“I saw it and it just talked to me, so I had to get it,” Pecht said, knowing it would be a perfect fit for the occasion. “It’s the stupid stuff that makes juniors, juniors. It’s the fun stuff, bonding with the guys.”
Solari and Boerman got shirts too. Solari’s spirit animal is a tiger, Boerman’s is an eagle.
From the most veteran member of the Wild, to the handful of newcomers, everybody is getting in on the fun.
A year ago, the team was a collection of raw talent scouted by a coach who’d seen something he liked during tryouts or on game film.
“Everyone was nervous, everyone was on edge,” forward Tyler Johnson said of last year’s Wild. “We had no idea what was coming. This year, we know.”
This year, they are a team.
Pre-season workouts still carry the intensity they did in 2011, but there’s a swagger and lightheartedness that wasn’t there before.
The Wild have 14 players back from the 2011 first-year expansion team, which earned an American West Hockey League playoff berth. The abundance of veterans working within a familiar system under second-year coach Tom Winkler is a tangible, on-ice advantage.
But the camaraderie and welcoming atmosphere is an intangible that could yield some impressive progress in the program’s second year.
“Nothing comes immediately,” said Pecht, who enters his fifth and final year of eligibility in juniors. “You can say it does, but it takes time to bond, to become brothers.”
Sean Kelley of Gillette, who joins the Wild’s ranks as a goalie, has started the bonding process. He’s formed friendships with the veteran players who spent the summer in town.
He said Connor and Ethan Hicks — twin brothers from Colorado — have taken the young goalie under their wing. Kelley refers to Ethan, a defender, as a big brother.
“These guys are being really good teammates and they’re accepting me,” Kelley, 18, said. “It feels really good.”
As an added bonus, the players are in excellent physical condition from a year ago, thanks largely to all the off-ice workouts this summer, Johnson said. The team did fitness testing during day one of last year’s preseason training. Johnson said the team now will put those marks to shame.
“If we do those this week and compare them to last year, we would shatter them,” he said.
Gillette reports to mandatory training camp Sunday. Its first exhibition tournament is in Helena, Mont., on Sept. 13.
The team opens the season on the road Oct. 5 against the Yellowstone Quake, one of two expansion teams in the American West Hockey League.
There’s no telling what will happen once the team steps onto the ice for the first time as a unit.
But one thing is for sure: communication won’t be an issue.