Thursday, September 13, 2007
A little time away is a refreshing escape from reality
By Terry Frei
Special to ESPN.com
It's semantics, of course, when it comes down to defining what is and isn't "training camp," whether that means in the NHL collective bargaining agreement or in the stands at the practice rink.
Fact of the matter is, 14 guys -- some of them not even from the local team -- getting together, ahem, "on their own" to skate and even scrimmage on the rink for as long as a month before the official reporting date is the norm, rather than the exception. The era of some guys staying off skates all summer and working their way into condition after painting and cleaning out the barn ended long ago.
That's all "given."
But if you want to define the full training "camp" as the pure on-ice period before preseason games begin, camp seems to last about 15 minutes. In truth, it's as short as two or three days. Daily doubles? History. And the concept of "getting away" for a bonding and immersion experience, however brief, at camp is a rarity -- and even when it exists, it's only on a limited scale.
The Red Wings head up to Traverse City, Mich., four hours from Detroit and closer to Green Bay, Wis.
The Panthers spend two days in Eagle, Colo., hearing some folks talk about looking forward to when the chairlifts start operating.
The Islanders travel to Moncton, New Brunswick, now the home of the QMJHL's Moncton Wildcats, and perhaps head to Bogart's, McGinnis Landing or the Pump House Brewery after coming off the ice.
The Canucks go to Victoria, British Columbia, prompting some to reminisce about the days when the Victoria Cougars were in major junior's WHL, and when teams catching the ferry to get to and out of Victoria was part of the deal.
On the "escape" front, that's pretty much it.
Without a real camp, there is no need for mothers or wives to sew nametags into underwear.
Nobody gets homesick.
Bar owners in camp towns don't reap a temporary bonanza from the patronage of reporters, players and other members of the traveling party. (That's said with the acknowledgment that there was a time when bar owners also hoped that the on-ice camp grudges didn't spill over to the bar at night, and that guys didn't drop their beer bottles and go at it.)
The advantage this season would have been that teams could have "unveiled" their new uniforms out of town and seen if the furor from those horrified by the new looks, both in terms of design and functionality, would have gotten it out of their system by the time the teams were on ice in their hometowns.
And the corollary to this is that preseason games in the hinterlands, or even major markets without NHL hockey, aren't as common as they once were. There are games in Hamilton, Ontario, Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Trenton, N.J., Binghamton, N.Y., Grand Forks, N.D, Manchester, N.H., Kansas City, Las Vegas, Rochester, N.Y., Moncton and Hershey, Pa. Nothing in Portland (either one) or Lafayette, La. Those certainly won't be, and shouldn't be, litmus tests of Hamilton, Las Vegas and Kansas City as potential NHL markets, but at least the Predators-Blues game in the new arena in Kansas City will trigger some musing about how soon the NHL will arrive in the building controlled by Kings owner Phil Anschutz.
Opening night is less than three weeks away.
It could be Monday.
It's much harder for somebody to come out of nowhere, or Fort McMurray, Alberta, and make a roster, whether it's in a couple of preseason game appearances or workouts. The organization knows all about its roster and its prospects, and rookie camps have exposed who can't even match up on that level. Almost everyone is in shape. Most NHL teams have their own practice facilities -- leased or owned -- that also work for camp or have access to the arena itself for camp workouts.
So perhaps there is little economic justification for spending the money to transport the entire organization and camp to an out-of-town site. You can even make the argument that indoctrination into an organization's "culture" better involves having training camp at the team site than on the road, and that the logistics of getting to and from the "away" site can waste some, ahem, camp time.
But I'm surprised more teams don't do it, even if it's for only a couple of days. The advantages are ineffable and in some ways ignore the changing realities of the sport. It's not as if the players come in cold and out of shape, or the new acquisitions haven't been on the ice with their new teammates.
It's just a mind-set issue.
For two days, at least, hunker down. Close ranks. Nurture the "us against the world" mentality, especially among the veterans certain to be on the final roster. Hell, ban cellphones, iPods, PDAs, Blackberrys (sorry, Mr. Balsillie), laptops, camcorders and portable DVD players. ("Don't bring your $#@* toys!" Don't close it to the media, of course, but at least draw the line by preventing the folks from the team Web site from posting any of the proceedings and turn it into a slideshow or sideshow.)
That's old-time hockey.
No, I'm not saying that if the Islanders for all intents and purposes have a playoff spot locked up by the All-Star break; or the Canucks run away with the Northwest Division; or the Panthers rebound after their annual Rocky Mountain retreat; or the Red Wings seem headed to a 70-win season, that it all can be traced back to "getting away" for camp.
But it can't hurt.
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and the upcoming "'77."