Crowded Knights camp

RYAN PYETTE -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:42 AM ET

Through the eyes of a young hockey player, it's easy to see how the first day of London Knights training camp can be intimidating.

Forget stepping on the ice of a 9,000-seat arena for the first time or trying to perform in front of the Hunters, Dale and Mark.

In the hallway, there's Rob Schremp -- fresh from Germany and Austria -- on his way out of the building, yakking on his phone to Dylan Hunter.

There's Edmonton Oilers forward Sam Gagner, looking through the glass at the next wave of Knights hopefuls.

There's former NHLer Steve (Stumpy) Thomas rushing in to drop off some fresh gear for his son Christian, the Knights No. 1 pick in 2008.

In the weight room, there's former string-bean defenceman Vladimir Roth, pumping 150 pounds 22 times on the bench press -- an eye-popping improvement over last year.

Or how about running into six-foot-three Akim Aliu, his hair standing straight up on end in a unique style?

Whether a player lasts two days or 10, they're in for an experience. They may already have a nickname if they've met second-year forward Daniel Erlich, who hangs a new handle on someone every three seconds.

They may finally feel at ease if they chat with Knights captain Scott Aarssen, who knows exactly how awkward it can be for the new guys.

"When I first came here, it wasn't just one person who welcomed me in," the 20-year-old defenceman said. "It was everybody. Sure, you want to make guys feel comfortable on their first day but it's not one guy's job.

"That's not the way it is here. Everybody has that role."

On the surface, it doesn't look like there's a lot of room for an unknown to swoop in and grab a roster spot.

The Knights are deep at forward and there are 21 defencemen in camp -- one NHL first-rounder (John Carlson), another big man who has already signed with the club (Barron Smith, son of ex-Knight Steve Smith) and eight veterans.

"There's a lot of talent here," Aarssen said. "It's going to be interesting to see what happens."

Even though there aren't many holes to fill, the Knights brass aren't putting the blinders on.

"That doesn't mean there isn't the chance for someone to step up and impress us," assistant coach Pat Curcio said. "There are going to be opportunities here. We have several guys going to NHL training camps and they won't be back for a while. There are always ways to work your way in. We see it happen all the time."

It's always difficult to earn your stripes. Heck, it isn't even easy to select a number.

Both of Nazem Kadri's favourites -- No. 9 and 19 -- are hanging in the John Labatt Centre rafters. He grew up a Montreal Canadiens fan, a team with a storied history of stars and hardly any lower digits remaining unretired, so now he can sympathize with Habs rookies relegated to numbers like 73 and 86.

The 17-year-old former Ranger didn't know what he was going to do until London traded over-age forward Tony Romano to Peterborough.

"I'm going with No. 91 now (Romano's old number)," Kadri said.

That's only a little bit higher than the army of relatives who will be in the stands this year to watch him perform.

"I don't know how many will be there -- maybe 50 or so," the Londoner said. "I'm excited to get started. It's going to be fun and it looks like we're going to have a good team.

"Going to the Memorial Cup last season (in Kitchener) was probably the biggest highlight of my life. This is going to be a big year with the NHL draft (he hopes to play himself into a first-round pick) and a chance to make the (Canadian) world junior team, so there's a lot on the line."


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