The Columbus Cottonmouths added three forwards to their training camp roster on Tuesday – a pair of players starting their third year pro, and a rookie forward with a very familiar last name.
The Snakes welcomed back forwards Craig Simchuk and Ben O’Quinn and added Derek Gingera – the brother of former Cottonmouth and 2015 SPHL MVP Matt Gingera – to the team.
Simchuk, 27, played in 77 games the past two seasons in Columbus, tallying 15 goals and 22 assists during that span. He missed three months of the season last year as he served a 28-game suspension – half of the 56-game SPHL regular season schedule – for his actions in a Dec. 18, 2015 game against Peoria.
“It was the hardest 28 games and three months,” Simchuk said. “Sitting out, watching games, it hurt. When I came back, I ended up breaking my finger the second game back, so that hunger carried over through the summer. It really felt like a nine-month suspension. I’m just ready to get back to it.”
However, he jumped at the opportunity to reprise his role with the team this season.
“It’s like a home to me; there’s no real hard decision,” Simchuk said. “Columbus is my first and only choice. I’m glad to be back.”
Snakes head coach Jerome Bechard will look to Simchuk as a leader in his third professional season.
“After his shortened season last year, he immediately was a shot in the arm the end of last season,” Bechard said. “His leadership, intensity, and physical play is what we lacked last year. I think he’ll want to come in with a really good start.
“Being a third year guy, I’ll be looking to him for leadership in the locker room on and off the ice. We’re really excited to have him for a full year.”
“I kind of felt myself stepping into that leadership role (last season), and I just want to build on that,” Simchuk said. “Just helping guys on and off the ice, whether it’s drills or getting them into the apartments and familiar with Columbus, whatever they need to get comfortable.”
Simchuk says consistency is the key the Snakes were lacking last season in missing postseason play for the first time in their 12-year history in the Southern Professional Hockey League.
“There were times when we could play with anyone in the league, and there were times where we looked like we didn’t belong in the league,” Simchuk said. “It sucks to say that, but it was true at times.”
Speaking of consistency, O’Quinn was the only player to play all 56 games for Columbus last season. After scoring 13 points in 14 games as a Cottonmouth at the end of the 2014-15 season, however, he scored just twice that – 26 points off nine goals and 17 assists – in four times as many games last year.
Bechard cites O’Quinn starting last season in an ECHL camp as a reason for the sophomore slump.
“With the success he had in 2014-15, I hoped it would turn into a bigger year last year,” Bechard said. “With him not going to an ECHL camp this season, I think he’ll be in a better mindset.
“I look for him to put up big numbers for us offensively. That comes with the style of play we need to play, and he needs to utilize his teammates as much as possible. With him going to the ECHL last year and not making it, I think he can tear it up, but he needs to be a team player while doing it.”
Gingera will begin his rookie season in Columbus after four years at Castleton University in Vermont, where he scored 22 goals and 21 assists in 88 career games there. Bechard sees Gingera as more of a two-way player than brother Matt – while Derek has an offensive prowess, he is also steady on the defensive end.
“Matt has two brothers at the collegiate level, and he called me about giving (Derek) an opportunity,” Bechard said. “He put up pretty good numbers in junior hockey and was put in a role to be an all-around player in college and chipped in offensively and defensively. He may not be the explosive 30-goal guy his brother was, but I think he’ll come in and put up some good numbers offensively and be responsible defensively as well.”
The trio join defensemen Rusty Hafner, Kyle Johnson, Alex Pompeo, and Kyle Shapiro and goaltenders Brandon Jaeger and Alex Larson on the Columbus training camp roster, set to begin in less than three weeks.
Meanwhile, goaltender Shannon Szabados was picked up by the Peoria Rivermen on Tuesday. The two-time Olympic women’s hockey gold medalist made history as the first female in the SPHL and also was the first female goaltender to pick up a shutout in a men’s professional game last Dec. 26 at Huntsville.
“The way we play defense in Peoria, and the types of players we have, I think she’s going to look at lot better with our team in front of her,” Rivermen coach Jean-Guy Trudel told the Peoria Journal-Star. “…And the fact is, Shannon had a defense in front of her last year that was really, really bad. It wasn’t a fair test of her ability. She hardly had a chance against us.
“…So she competes, she sticks her nose in there, and she posted a saves rate over .900 for a team that had the worst defense in the league.”
In contrast, Bechard was nothing but congratulatory for Szabados and her opportunity with the Rivermen.
“I’m happy for her,” Bechard said. “She e-mailed me Monday to give me a heads up. I wish her the best of luck. I’m not sure what type of team Peoria has this year, but they’ve always had a good defensive structure. That should help her do well there.”
The Snakes begin training camp in three weeks. Their first regular season game is at Macon on Oct. 21, and they will host Macon in the home opener at the Columbus Civic Center the next night on Oct. 22.