- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 12, 2006

HERSHEY, Pa. — There is an interesting parallel between Stephen Werner and Sergei Gonchar, a former All-Star defenseman for the Washington Capitals.

When Gonchar was growing up in Russia, his father wanted him to be a soccer player. But Gonchar was drawn to hockey and eventually won that battle.

When Werner was 6 or 7, he said yesterday, his soccer coach took his son and Werner to a store that sold hockey equipment. The coach outfitted them and put them on the ice.

“We started skating and playing, and that was it,” said Werner, a Chevy Chase native. “I found out I loved to skate.”

Werner is one of 35 prospects at the Caps’ week-long rookie camp at Giant Center in central Pennsylvania, although for today only the scene shifts across the parking lot to historic Hersheypark Arena, a 70-year-old facility that housed the Hershey Bears since the birth of the American Hockey League before World War II.

Werner, a 21-year-old right wing, has an advantage over most of the players at the camp. Already under contract with Washington, he has a spot reserved with the Bears next season — if he doesn’t find a better one.

“It would really be nice if he could make our team coming out of training camp,” Caps general manager George McPhee said yesterday. “That’s what training camp is for, to determine where guys go.”

That scenario is unlikely but not impossible. Washington needs right wings, but the rookie has more experienced people in front of him. Werner is 6-foot-1, 200 pounds and an excellent skater — the right formula for today’s NHL. If he were to make the NHL, he would become the second player from Montgomery County after Jeff Halpern, the Potomac native who recently left the Capitals for the Dallas Stars.

Werner signed a pro contract right after his college career at Massachusetts ended March 14 and immediately reported to Hershey. He played in only four regular season games but participated in a long playoff ride.

“I didn’t realize I was going to be here as long as I was,” said Werner, who thought he would return to UMass last spring to finish his degree. “The playoff run ran a long time [the Bears won the Calder Cup], so I wasn’t able to graduate. I’m working on that this summer.”

Said McPhee: “He needs experience, that’s all. He’s got NHL legs, NHL strength and he shoots the puck real well. He just needs some time.”

Hershey assistant coach Bob Woods, who worked with Werner daily, agrees.

“He’s a great kid, got a great work ethic, a very intelligent player,” he said. “When he played for us, he got better every game he played. Now he just has to learn the pro game. College kids have to learn how to take care of themselves but look at this camp — he came in prepared and ready to go. He knows what it takes.”

Note — Luke Lynes, the Ellicott City, Md., resident taken by the Caps in the fourth round of the recent draft, is playing Junior A for Brampton in the Ontario Hockey League.

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