It’s been a long five months, but hockey officially returned to Bojangles’ Coliseum Monday morning.

With the start of the 2017-18 campaign just over a week away, the Checkers opened training camp today, hitting the ice as a group for the first time with Mike Vellucci at the helm.
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Vellucci was brought on as head coach earlier this summer, stepping in as the fourth person in that position in as many years. The good news for the Checkers is that their newest bench boss is no stranger to Charlotte, as Vellucci is entering his fourth season as assistant general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes.

On the first day of training camp, that familiarity can come in handy.

“It’s a huge positive for myself because I’ve known everyone from the off-ice people to the players,” said Vellucci. “I know what these guys can do on the ice. I got down here and I feel very comfortable and ready to go.”

The group, which includes the first two rounds of cuts from Canes Camp, AHL-contracted players and a trio of camp invites, will hit the ice each day this week before jetting north for a pair of preseason contests against the Lehigh Valley Phantoms this weekend. With such a short amount of time, Vellucci is using his preferred practice techniques to get the most out of the team.

“I like short, hard practices,” he said. “Let’s get on the ice, let’s work extremely hard and let’s get off the ice to get some work done after. When you’re on the ice standing around talking it gets boring and you lose their attention span, you lose my attention span. I just want to work hard and we’ll get off the ice.”

Vellucci set the tempo right off the bat with Monday’s opening skate.

“We had a really up-pace practice today and it was fun to get out with the guys,” said Patrick Brown, last year’s team captain. “[Vellucci] is going to demand every ounce that we’ve got. He’s a great guy, I’ve known him for a couple years now, and he ran a great practice. I’m excited for the year.”

By this point Vellucci has spent a considerable chunk of the last few weeks with several players, whether it was in the Traverse City tournament or at Hurricanes camp in Raleigh. When transitioning to Checkers camp, the plan is keep things as similar as possible.

“The key is to keep the same pace as the NHL level,” said Vellucci. “It is fast. The tendency is when you come down to a lower level you want to slow the pace down and play at your own pace. Well, if you want to get back to the National Hockey League, you’ve got to keep that pace up. When they come down here I want them to keep the pace up with short, hard practices. Make sure we’re working hard and smart.”

Among the 27 players present for day one of training camp are several fighting to secure themselves a spot on the team. They may not have an extended amount of time to make an impression, but the opportunity is certainly there for the taking.

“What they can show me is that they want to work and they want to stay here no matter what,” said Vellucci. “If they happen not to, then show that they can get a call up when we’re in need of that position.”

“It’s just a matter of working hard every time you get on the ice, skating fast and playing how they want you to play, hard and fast,” said rookie Nick Schilkey, who is signed to a one-way AHL-contract with the Checkers. “That’s what they want you to do in these practices, then let the chips fall where they may.”

While the combination of developing high-end players and evaluating players on the bubble may seem like a lot to juggle, Vellucci is prepared to do what’s necessary to create a solid squad.

“It can be difficult because you want to develop and you want to win,” he said. “If you’re only going to develop certain guys, you’re not going to win because you need everyone to win a game, you need 20 guys. We’ve got to make sure we’ve got everyone on the same page. We’ve got our roles and we play as a team.”

Today is just the first of several on-ice sessions leading up to the season opener, but Vellucci is already leaning toward the optimistic side when it comes to his club.

“I love the makeup. We’re going to be young so we might have some growing pains early, but we’ll get through it. We have size and energy and skill, so I expect us to make the playoffs and do really well there. That’s our goal every year and this year is no different.”