Defenseman Kevin Kessler reports for his third Columbus Cottonmouths training camp on Oct. 13 with high expectations.
"We have a lot of the pieces in place and are excited and optimistic," Kessler said. "We'll have old and new guys competing for jobs. We expect to win."
Kessler and a pair of rookies bring the total to 18 names on the Snakes camp roster. Defenseman Jesse Slobodian and goaltender Jesse Chenard are also preparing for the opening of camp.
Along with the other returning players, Kessler is eager to erase memories of a pair of playoff shutouts that erased the Cottonmouths' hopes to repeat as Southern Professional Hockey League champions.
"I'm excited to get back," Kessler said. "I've been thinking about it all summer and have been preparing physically and mentally. The playoffs left a bad taste in our mouths."
Kessler is the proud father of a baby boy born in late May to his fiancée, Heather Cannon. Kipp Kessler's arrival launched a busy summer for the new family.
"It's been a hectic summer," Kessler said. "We've been traveling a lot and the baby has been meeting a lot of family members."
Kessler has returned to Columbus and is ready to welcome new members of the Cottonmouths family.
"It's very important to make the new guys comfortable right off the bat," Kessler said. "We need to feel like a team as soon as possible."
Kessler's first two Snakes seasons produced widely varied results. At the end of the first year, the team raised the President's Cup after sweeping through the playoffs undefeated. A year ago, Knoxville knocked the Cottonmouths out in the first round, posting back-to-back 3-0 shutouts.
"At the beginning of my first year, we started out at the same pace," Kessler said. "We'd win a couple, then lose a couple, going back and forth. Then around Christmas we got on a roll. Nothing could stop us. Last year, we were still doubting ourselves around mid-season. Not everybody bought into the system. It was hard for us as a team because we were still looking for answers."
Chenard earned a business degree from Briarcrest College in Saskatchewan but wasn't quite ready to enter the business world. Chenard attended the free agent camp conducted by assistant coach Brad Prefontaine in Wetaskiwin, Alberta last month.
"I knew I wanted to play professionally," Chenard said. "The free agent camp was a really good experience. It was great to be somewhere that I could be evaluated by people who could give me another chance to play."
Chenard hails from Camrose, Alberta, home of former Snakes assistant captain Tim Green. Though he's acquainted with Green, he has not had the opportunity to discuss Green's Cottonmouths experience.
"I haven't been back in Camrose this summer," Chenard said. "I went back to school to train and do some skating in the off-season. Then I headed to Vancouver to work with my goalie trainer and do some camps for kids."
Chenard will hit the road for Columbus on October 9 on a trip that's expected to last well over 30 hours. His previous lengthy car treks lasted 24 and 17 hours, each with multiple drivers. This time, he'll go solo with plans to divide the journey into three 12- hour days.
"I'm very excited," Chenard said. "So far I've played all across western Canada. Now I've got the chance to play professionally and go somewhere new."
Slobodian, a 6-5, 205-pound defenseman, will first attend camp with the South Carolina Stingrays (ECHL). Slobodian played the 2011-2012 season with the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology with Snakes defenseman Kyle Johnson and forward Jordan Draper.
The Snakes open their 10th SPHL season in Pensacola on Friday, Oct. 25, in a matchup of the past two league champions. The Snakes' home opener is the following night against Knoxville at 7:30.