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More than 30 players take part in tryouts for the San Diego Sabers, an amateur athletic union sanctioned Tier II Junior A hockey team in the Western States Hockey League. The team plays home games at Escondido’s Ice-Plex. Photo by Tony Cagala
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Sabers ‘reloading’ for new hockey season

ESCONDIDO — Centerman Ben Evans took two high sticks to the face, got a cut above his eye, busted a lip, shattered a tooth, and needed at least five stitches all before the tryout was through.

Evans, 20, a hockey player from Denver, Colo., was trying out for the San Diego Sabers, Escondido’s hometown hockey team.

Though not to add salt to his wounds, Evans most likely wasn’t going to make the team.

“Ben’s a great kid and I would love to have him here, but he’s also played in this league on another team, so his rights are currently owned by another team,” said Mark Haupt, assistant coach and media relations manager for the Sabers.

Having a contract with another team makes it all the more difficult for other organizations to try to obtain players.

The Sabers are part of the Western States Hockey League (WHSL), an amateur athletic union sanctioned Tier II Junior A hockey team, which claims the Escondido Ice-Plex as their home arena.

First entered into the league as the San Diego Surf from 2001 to 2008, the team changed their name to the San Diego Gulls in 2008, which lasted until last year when the Gulls of the American Hockey League, the minor league affiliate of the Anaheim Might Ducks returned to San Diego.

The 2015-16 season was the team’s first time as the Sabers.

Now, the Sabers are entering the 2016-17 season with another new start, too — the team’s owner and general manager Jim Cavataio brought in Haupt and head coach Joakim Falt.

The organization wrapped up a three-day tryout in June, with more than 30 players hoping to make the team.

“Out of that, there were some pretty good players that we’re interested in,” Haupt said. “I thought all in all, it was a very good showcase and there was some good talent out there.”

The hope was to sign at least five or six players from the tryouts, with the rest of the roster being rounded out later on.

This year, the Sabers open the season with a three game series in Arizona against the Hawks starting Sept. 30. Their first weekend series at home is slated to begin Oct. 14 against the Las Vegas Storm.

“This division has a highly-skilled talent level,” Haupt said. “The influx of European players coming over here has made the entire league really good.”

Last season was a struggle for the Sabers, though, finishing with a 9-40 record, with three overtime losses over the course of their 52 game season.

It’s one of the reasons why Cavataio, the team’s general manager and owner, brought Haupt and new Falt in.

“The wins and losses are great and we always strive to win,” Haupt said. “But the development of the young man and moving them on to college to play hockey in college and go to school, or moving them on to the pro ranks, speaks volumes for your program.”

But don’t call it a rebuilding season.

“I would say in a Junior A level you’re always in a position where (you’re) not so much rebuilding but you’re reloading,” Haupt said. “I think San Diego has a good core here even though we blew it up a little bit.”

Haupt added they’re not only looking for good hockey players but for good character kids.

Liam Ritchie, who came down from British Columbia, Canada to try out said it was pretty interesting to see a good number of Canadians trying out for the Sabers. “I like to see all these Canadian boys come down here, it’s pretty fun,” Ritchie said.

Towering over the other players, Ritchie, a defenseman by trade, stood 6-feet, 10-inches tall — not really normal for a hockey player — and that wasn’t including his skates.

“The weather’s nice up here,” he said though.

But the height, he thinks, helps him out on the ice.

“It’s like a quarterback situation, you see over people when you play,” he said.

Following the tryouts, Ritchie said he liked it here in San Diego, especially the weather and gave the team a verbal commitment to play.

On Wednesday, the Sabers announced they had signed Ritchie to this year’s roster.

In a statement issued from Cavataio, he said the team is looking for great things from Ritchie this season.

“His size and quick speed will help our team defensively,” Cavataio said.

At 15, Mason Kohn is one of the younger members of the team already signed. It will be the Carmel Valley resident’s first year with the Sabers.

The talent he’s seen already, even at the tryouts, has been pretty decent all the way through, he said.

“Everybody’s pretty big, pretty strong. Definitely a lot of older guys for me, especially with me being a younger kid,” he said.

As for seeing a 6-foot, 10-inch player on the ice: “It’s unusual for sure,” Kohn said referring to Ritchie.

Now that they’re teammates, it’s a sight he’ll have to get used to.

Back to Evans, playing hockey professionally has always been the dream, he said. But the aspiring hockey player/actor knows the odds of making it in the NHL.

“One in every 10,000 people make it to the NHL. Unfortunately, when I was in high school, I didn’t have the drive that those professional athletes have,” he said. “Right now it’s just fun,” he added.