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Shawn P. Roarke
About Shawn
Shawn P. Roarke is NHL.com's Senior Writer. With nearly 15 years on the NHL beat, Shawn promises to provide his sometimes off-the-wall views on the NHL and pop culture in general on a regular basis.

E-mail Shawn your comments at: Roarkeblog@nhl.com

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The season has started!

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Thursday, August 25, 2006

The season has started!

Sure, hockey's preseason doesn't start until mid-September.

And, yes, the sun still burns bright and long in the summer sky, suggesting the beach may well be the best refuge yet again.

Baseball is in its pennant-drive phase, football is in its preseason phase and soccer on the Continent has just started up again. All signs that the dog days of summer are in full bark.

Yet, despite all those clear signals to the contrary, hockey season, at least for me, started in earnest Thursday. You see, hockey always starts with that first trip of the season to an ice rink.

Thursday, I made that trip, trekking to Long Island to visit The Rinx, a beautiful twin-sheet facility located mid-island in Happaugge. As I passed car after car of people clearly heading to the beaches of Coney Island, Jones Beach and the Hamptons, I felt no envy despite the gorgeous mid-80s weather.

They were doing a thing they loved, and I was doing what I loved.

For more than three decades now, the first trip of the season to an ice hockey rink has held sway over me. As a youth player, it was about a fresh beginning, an empty canvas that I would fill throughout the year. As a fan, it was a similar feeling -- the beginning of a journey that could veer off into hundreds of untold directions. You never knew the final destination, but you remained confident the ride would be fun.

Now, as a hockey writer, the first trip to the hockey rink is about returning to work. And, when you love your job like I do, returning to work is never a bad thing.

Now, don't get me wrong. It's not like I have been on vacation since the day after the Carolina Hurricanes raised the Stanley Cup on June 19. There has been work -- and plenty of it. The NHL Entry Draft has come and gone, free agency has been an ongoing concern, off-season features have been penned and, now, season previews are at the forefront of the editorial calendar.

But, all of that work is done from an office, using a phone and a computer to gather the necessary information. Not a bad way to make a living, for sure; but a pale comparison to hitting the rinks and taking things in first-hand.

Thursday, I did just that by walking into The Rinx facility to see defenseman Darius Kasparaitis of the New York Rangers and forward Alexei Yashin of the New York Islanders take the ice as guests of a summer camp run by local coach Aleksey Nikiforov.

Even before I reached the actual rink, the bracing effect of the chilled air and the melody of pucks welcomed me back to the sights and sounds that are the rhythm of my life for better than nine months a year.

I had my first fix of the year and I was happy. Sixty-five days was far too long to wait for this feeling to return.

Nikiforov is a legendary youth coach in these parts, coaching the New York Bobcats, a Junior A team that plays in the Atlantic Junior Hockey League. He also has served as a private instructor molding a growing flood of NHL players.

He worked with Darius Kasparaitis and Dainius Zubrus as youngsters back in Lithuania, turning them into NHL ready prospects. Since arriving in Long Island in the early-90s, he has help develop a score of area players into NHL prospects. Eric Nystrom, Mike Komisarek and Chris Higgins are among his star pupils. His son, Vladimir, plays for the Barrie Colts in the Ontario Hockey League and will attend Dallas Camp this fall as an a free-agent invitee.

The elder Nikiforov also served as a skating instructor for the Russian Olympic team at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano.

Yashin also worked with Nikiforov throughout much of the lockout, showing up to train with many of the NHL players that have been shaped by Nikiforov's tutelage.

Thursday, Kasparaitis and Yashin were on hand to pay back their debts to Nikiforov, sharing the ice with a gaggle of wide-eyes youngsters shocked to be sharing the ice with two NHL stars.

The summer camp was followed by an informal, but spirited scrimmage. The five-on-five shinny session included some Division I college players, a trio of OHL players, a draft-eligible player from the USHL and a couple of members of Nikiforov's Bobcats' team.

Throughout the day, both NHLers had smiles on their faces as they continued working out the off-season kinks in preparation for the opening of training camps in three weeks.

For Kasparaitis, Thursday was just another milepost in his return from a right groin injury that derailed him in New York's first-round playoff series against New Jersey.

He had surgery to rectify the problem after the season and is still rehabilitating it. He is not back to 100 percent yet, but he is getting closer.

"I'll be ready to go from the first day of camp," Kasparaitis promised. "I have to work hard and be smart."

For Yashin, there is no injury to rehabilitate, just the desire to put last season firmly in the past. Despite tying for his team's scoring lead, Yashin was intensely disappointed that the Islanders missed the playoffs. An off-season that saw wholesale changes throughout the Islander franchise has only brought that disappointment into sharper focus.

And, that burning sense of disappointment has been the fuel that has fired Yashin's off-season.

He says he began working out July 1 and is ready for the training camp under new coach Ted Nolan that will begin a new era for the Islanders.

"Our goal is to bring back happy days to the Islanders," he said.

There was no denying that Thursday was a happy day for Yashin. He smiled throughout the on-ice session with the youngsters. During the scrimmage, he celebrated good plays, and frequent goals, with the boyish exuberance of his younger competitors.

He says the scrimmage was a blast, a chance to give something back to younger players in the same way he was nurtured as a young player back in Russia.

"They get some excitement when they play against a guy like me," Yashin said, no sign of cockiness bleeding through his huge smile. "It can help them get to where they want to be."

With that, he collected his equipment and walked out of The Rinx with a bounce to his step, stopping to sign a few autographs before walking back into the heat of a perfect summer day on the Island.

A few minutes later, I followed Yashin's path back out into the blinding sun, leaving the unique sights and sounds of the hockey rink behind, but not forgotten. A similar -- although far less photogenic -- smile was plastered to my face.

For me, hockey season has begun. Not even the brutal rush-hour traffic on the Long Island Expressway, the Van Wyck Expressway, the Belt Parkway and the slog across Staten Island to the Garden State Parkway could dampen that fact.

See you all at a rink soon!

Posted by Shawn @ 2:02 p.m.


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