This was already shaping up to be a unique season for the Checkers.
They were set to return to the ice after opting out of the 2020-21 season due to COVID, and they would be doing so with a new affiliate for the first time in the franchise’s history - the Florida Panthers.
Then came the added wrinkle of the Kraken.
With Seattle slated to embark on their inaugural NHL season but their AHL affiliate in Coachella Valley delayed until next year, the Checkers stepped in to house their prospects for a season in the meantime.
So when it came time for training camp, there were two distinct groups joining forces in Charlotte.
“Having two organizations come together at the beginning of the year, a lot of players didn’t know each other,” said defenseman and Florida prospect Chase Priskie. “I think it was definitely a challenge.”
Tasked with integrating the two organizations into one cohesive squad, Head Coach Geordie Kinnear immediately established his key rule - it’s not about who belongs to Florida and who belongs to Seattle, everyone is a Checker.
“We put the team ahead of any individual accolades or aspirations,” said Kinnear. “When you have that and you can put the team first, you can do special things.”
There was undoubtedly a feeling out process as the two sides came together through training camp and the start of the year.
“Coming in, none of us really knew each other,” said rookie forward and Seattle prospect Luke Henman. “You could see it at the start of the year, it was kind of split. We would do team bonding events and it would be Seattle guys and Florida guys hanging out - which is normal, we didn’t know each other.”
Fortunately for all parties involved, the meshing process proved to be seamless. Fast forward to the end of the season and the overwhelming sentiment was how close this group had become.
“It was a little weird at the start, a lot of new faces,” said Seattle prospect Alexander True. “But I think we came together very well. It’s probably been the tightest group of guys that I’ve played with.”
“Honestly the main takeaway for me is that this is an unbelievable group of guys,” said Bowlby. “I haven’t been this close with a group.”
The combining of the two affiliates started at the top, as Kinnear was paired with Dan Bylsma as his assistant coach representing the Seattle organization, and the two quickly built a strong relationship behind the bench that set the tone across the team.
“You look at Dan and I, we work for two separate organizations but we work together,” said Kinnear. “The players were no different, they worked extremely well together.”
In the room, the Checkers leaned on a strong leadership corps to bring the team together, and they were in good hands with a veteran like Zac Dalpe wearing the C.
“Once I realized how special of a room we had, it was easy for me to kind of drive the boat a little bit,” said Dalpe, who is under contract with Florida. “With the coaching staff and the way we wanted to play, it was easy to be a leader.”
“The bond that we grew with each other was really special in such a short amount of time,” said Henman. “It says a lot about the coaching staff and the leadership group - guys like Dalps and Willy [Scott Wilson], Max [McCormick], all those guys. They brought us together. Now I can say I love all those guys in there.”
As the group grew closer, the evidence manifested on the ice as the Checkers tore through the back part of their schedule en route to winning the Atlantic Division crown.
“The special thing that always brings teams together is winning,” said alternate captain and Seattle signee Connor Carrick. “We had quality people throughout our lineup and it made that easier to do day in and day out.”
The tight-knight group will have to go their separate ways now, as the Checkers were eliminated from the Calder Cup Playoffs on Saturday. The impending departure of half the team cast a bit of gloom over Sunday and Monday’s locker room clean outs.
“It’s been very special,” said True. “I’m sad that we have to split up now.”
“It’s a tough day,” said Henman. “You never know in pro hockey when you might see these guys. You hope you cross paths down the road but it’s definitely a tough day.”
“This is the closest team I’ve ever been on in terms of camaraderie and friendships that I’ve made,” said Dalpe.
Next season will see Seattle’s prospects competing on the opposite coast as the Coachella Valley Thunderbirds, but their ties to this particular Checkers team will remain.
“Some of these guys are my best friends and a lot of them are going to be close friends for a long time,” said Seattle goaltending prospect Joey Daccord. “I’m sad to see the end of it since so many of us aren’t going to be together next year. It’s disappointing from that end.”
The 2021-22 season will likely be looked back on in the future as a quirky blip in Checkers history, when the new expansion team came through for a brief stay. For the players in the room, though, it will bring about a wave of positive memories.
“I think we’re all sad and disappointed from how it ended, but we can all look back at this year so fondly and really cherish all the time that we spent together,” said Daccord. “We made a lot of great friends and we battled through a lot together. I’ll always look back at this year with a big smile.”