Though the start of the AHL season is still one month away, this has proven to be a milestone week for the growth of hockey in Charlotte.
On Saturday, the new Carolina Checkers program will play its first-ever game when its U13 team takes on the Atlanta Fire at Extreme Ice Center in Indian Trail. It will mark the first time a local team has competed at the AAA level, which is regarded as the highest level of youth hockey in North America.
Meanwhile, 700 miles away, Sarnia Sting forward Bryan Moore is set to become the first Charlotte-area native to suit up in the Ontario Hockey League. The 18-year-old, a former Charlotte Checkers stick boy, played his first exhibition game for the Sting on Thursday, recording a goal and an assist.
Both are unprecedented steps forward for the growth of youth hockey in Charlotte, but they also demonstrate how far things have come in a relatively short time.
There's no better example of that than Moore, who was born and raised in Matthews. Once he started hanging around the Checkers' locker room between the ages of nine and 13, he realized that he wanted hockey to be his future.
"Just being around the guys really helped," said Moore, whose father, Eric, is still part of the ice maintenance crew at Time Warner Cable Arena. "I would see them train and hear them telling me to keep working hard, and that's what I did."
Beyond that hard work, other sacrifices were necessary. At the age of 13, Moore had to move all the way to Detroit to play AAA hockey with the Compuware program sponsored by Carolina Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos. An understandable bout of homesickness followed, at which time he returned to Charlotte only to move again to Raleigh to participate in the Jr. Hurricanes AAA program that was founded in 2007.
"You're a little nervous in the first year you move, but over time you battle through it and now I enjoy being away and playing hockey," said Moore. "The (billet) families are great, and you fit in right away."
Since then, things have worked out for Moore, whose speed and grit helped him earn a contract with the Sting on the second day of this season's training camp. His stint with the Jr. Canes, during which time he ranked second on the team in scoring, led to opportunities with the USHL's Sioux Falls Stampede (where he spent the last two seasons) and the Sting, who both drafted him in 2010. He's now playing in one of the best junior leagues in the world on a team that has produced two No. 1 overall NHL draft picks in the last four years - Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos (2008) and Edmonton's Nail Yakupov (2012).
Still, those early moves are ones that local players like him may not have to make for much longer. Though still in its infancy, the new Carolina Checkers program is being designed to fill the void of higher-level competition that was proving problematic for elite players from the Jr. Checkers AA program that has earned three medals at national tournaments in the last two years.
"Locally in Charlotte, we started to feel like we had a pretty good AA team and had players who could play at the next level, but we didn't offer it," said Derek Wilkinson, the Checkers' senior vice president of hockey operations who also serves as one of the youth program's directors. "We wanted to make it so these kids wouldn't have to move out of their hometown, and this is the first step towards doing that."
Though the bulk of the 13U team that will play Saturday is from Charlotte, the program has already brought in players from other North Carolina cities like Greensboro and a handful of South Carolina locations including Charleston, Columbia and Greenville. With the program set to play a short schedule in its first season, those players will play four to six games under the Carolina Checkers banner this season while continuing to suit up for their local travel teams.
The idea is that the program can eventually expand from its current offerings at the U13 and U12 levels to include a more full-time schedule with additional age classifications. If things go well for the group that's set to take the ice on Saturday, they would likely form the core of the U16 team that the program hopes to have in place by the 2014-15 season.
"The plan is that they spend a year or two together and hopefully build a group that's strong enough to compete," said Wilkinson.
If they need a hometown role model, those kids now need to look no further than local products like Jackson Tucker, who recently made the varsity team at the prestigious Avon Old Farms prep school in Connecticut, and Moore, whose family now lives just minutes from the rink in which they'll play their first game as a team.
"I know that if you do work hard, you can get somewhere," said Moore.
Update: The Carolina Checkers won both of their games against Atlanta over the weekend.