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Arizona Coyotes start rookie camp; Dane Birks back in the Valley

Coyotes rookies stretch at the team's rookie camp at Gila River Arena in Glendale, Ariz. on Sept. 5, 2019. (Matt Layman/Arizona Sports)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Hockey is back at Gila River Arena.

Even if it’s just practice.

The Arizona Coyotes commenced their annual rookie camp at Gila River Arena on Thursday. It really began on Wednesday night with video, then more video on Thursday morning along with physical tests and a warm-up. But on Thursday afternoon, they took the ice for practice.

The practice is in preparation for a rookie tournament that will take place in Anaheim starting this weekend. The Ducks, Avalanche, Kings, Sharks, Knights and Coyotes will all participate in the tournament, which runs through Tuesday. Games are on Saturday, Sunday and Tuesday.

“Just trying to put in place some pillars, some key identity points for us of how we play, and allow these guys to understand that so that they have some structure and semblance of what they’re doing when they go out as a team,” general manager John Chayka said. “Just allow them to perform to their best. As a team performs well, individuals can play well, too. That’s kind of the idea.”

Victor Soderstrom, Barrett Hayton, Nick Merkley, Tyler Steenbergen, Liam Kirk, Ivan Prosvetov and others are on the rookie camp roster, which travels to Anaheim on Friday.

“Today was good,” defenseman Dane Birks said. “We got a lot of stuff to cover in two days before we head out to Anaheim. We had two ice times today, we covered a lot of D zone and forecheck and what they want in their system and stuff. So it was good.”

GET TO KNOW DANE BIRKS

Speaking of Birks, the Coyotes acquired the defenseman in the Phil Kessel trade and he was among those who skated at Gila River Arena on Thursday. But coincidentally, it wasn’t the first time he’s skated there.

The Merritt, British Columbia, native was drafted in the sixth round by Pittsburgh in 2013 and remained with that organization until he came over with Kessel. But when he was with the Michigan Tech Huskies for college hockey, he and his teammates played in the inaugural Desert Hockey Classic tournament at Gila River Arena in 2016.

He didn’t mind bringing up the fact that his team won that tournament, too.

“Looked very familiar to me, and it was awesome to get back here,” he said of playing in Glendale again.

Michigan Tech, in the state’s Upper Peninsula in the town of Houghton, is at a more northern latitude than Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. Their athletic programs are all DII, except for hockey, a team whose alumni include Pheonix Copley, Jujhar Khaira and former Coyotes forward John Scott, among others.

“It was good. It was a small town community that supported the team very well,” he said. “We were the only Division-I on campus, so we were role models to everybody and we got a lot of support from the fans in the community. So that was awesome.

“We would get like four, five feet of snow sometimes.”

Now, he finds himself in different weather but familiar territory. Even including his BCHL career, though, this was the first time he’s been traded. And it came in a blockbuster that involved sending Kessel to Arizona and Alex Galchenyuk back to Pittsburgh.

“I was shocked,” Birks said. “I had no idea that I was going to be tossed in there. But at the same time, it’s kind of an honor to be in a trade with Phil Kessel, you know?”

Birks arrives to the Coyotes without having known anyone — player or staff — in advance. It’s also unclear where he’ll play next season; he spent all but one game last year with the ECHL’s Wheeling Nailers and was called up to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre for the final game of the season.

With Wheeling last year, Birks had a goal and 13 assists with 64 penalty minutes and a plus-1 rating in 65 games. His landing spots with Arizona include AHL Tucson or the new ECHL affiliate, the Rapid City Rush.

“He’s a depth piece,” Chayka said. “A guy that come out here and fill a role for us. Just a guy that we got that our guys had some time for, and we’ll see how he does here and see how things progress.

“We got him just to move the puck from the back end and play a simple game. He can skate pretty well and move the puck for us. That’s kind of the main thing.”

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