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Players plentiful; jobs few

One by one this day they stand and wave, and who knows if it’s hello or goodbye. They are kids from Holy Cross and Dartmouth and Michigan State and Minnesota-Duluth. They are pros from the ECHL and the CHL and the Southern Professional league. They are names you will remember, and they are names you will not.

“Good luck,” Komets coach Al Sims says to all of them, and if you detect a weight to those two words that wasn’t there on other welcome-to-training-camp media days, consider your radar fully functional.

Good luck …

’Cause, boys, you’re gonna need it.

This is, after all, a new league with bigger stakes for everyone this time around; there are concrete NHL affiliations now, which means the kids and the pros in this camp aren’t just fighting for a roster spot here, but potential roster spots a rung or two up the ladder. But that’s only one element that’s giving the vibe a sharper edge these days.

Here’s the other: The NHL has gone dark again.

This means a whole pile of players who’d otherwise be gainfully employed are looking for ice time elsewhere, and that in turn means they’re displacing other players. Which, of course, means those players are in turn displacing others.

“Everybody has an abundance of good players right now,” Sims says.

That’s the last thing Gerry Festa needs to hear.

The third-year pro from Calgary is one of those names you’ll remember – he played 14 games for the Komets backing up Nick Boucher last year, going 6-4-3 with a stout 2.98 goals-against average – but right now he’s a goalie for hire in a market flush with them, so you don’t have to tell him about sharper vibes. He’s pretty much channeling them as a man just looking for somewhere to land in a job market that’s gone from competitive to ridiculously so.

“You look at a few of those rosters, there’s three or four goalies, a lot of them under contract,” Festa says. “Coupled with the fact that there’s fewer double-A teams in the Central League, and a goalie like myself that kind of fits into that level and has had some success at that level may be pushed out or have a little more difficult time getting in a secure spot.”

Festa has nothing like that, at least at the moment. In May he was bench-pressing the President’s Cup for the CHL champions; five months later he was invited to camp only because Charlie Effinger and Kenny Reiter, the Komets presumed goalies this year, are in AHL camps.

Now he’s just looking to find a niche … well, somewhere.

“(This summer) I was trying to get into a good spot and just not really finding something I was happy with or comfortable with,” says Festa, who like most players on the double-A level lives from one-year contract to one-year contract. “Things were kind of open for training camp. I came to skate a couple weeks ago with the guys, and then Coach invited me to camp so it kind of worked out well.”

Whether it works out well in the long run, he has no clue. The landscape is so different, with the Komets in a different league and the NHL lockout skewing everything.

“Everything just kind of depends on how things shake down,” he said Monday. “I just want to come in and have a good camp and make an impression and show what I can do. It’s a comfortable spot for me, and hopefully it leads to good things.”

Hopefully.

One more word with some weight to it.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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