Fans have had the next week highlighted on their calendars all summer - the start of Blue Jackets Training Camp presented by OhioHealth.
It's the start to the preseason, the moment where the players hit the ice and the world feels normal once again. For fans, the on-ice obsession kicks off when players lace up for the first practice of camp on Friday.
But the players don’t wait for training camp to come around to get into the hockey mindset. While the month of August is a quiet time for big-time hockey news, it’s one of the more important preparation periods for NHL players, and it begins with informal workouts.
Most Jackets’ players have been in Columbus for several weeks, skating with their teammates and getting in shape for the first official team activities.
Players won’t see or hear from coaches or management during that period. Instead, it is the players running workouts and planning drills that are voluntary for players, but have been attended almost unanimously.
“It’s very important at the start,” said third-year winger Cam Atkinson, who’s himself looking to show more consistency in his game. “You want to build with this group of guys here and for the most part every guy is here. You want to keep the workouts going because it’s a long season, and you need to protect yourself and stay as healthy as you can.”
The workouts have a casual feel, with players working together on their needs, one-timers at one end and a relaxed shoot-around at the other. But still in the mix is a series of up-tempo battle drills to spark competition and creativity. Small area three-on-three games, one-on-one corner battles, and neutral zone wind sprints are only a few instances in which players are pushing each other to get into shape and holding teammates accountable.
For Matt Calvert, there’s value in being able to get into game-shape while in a professional environment.
“I think for guys to come in a few weeks before the season, and to be able to skate with NHL
-caliber hockey players, with 40 pro-caliber hockey players, it gets your levels up that much more,” Calvert said. “It’s obviously not the real thing but our team has had good commitment the last few weeks and I think we’re going to be ready to go Friday.”
Some players even skipped the return trip home this off-season, instead choosing to stay in Columbus through the summer and continue working where they left off in April.
“For the most part, a lot of the guys stayed here. I know a lot of the married guys and a lot of the younger guys, “ said Atkinson. “And it’s important to show your face. We’re building this thing one day at a time and it’s good for everyone to be here getting stronger as a group.”
Players are also well-aware of the younger prospects in the Blue Jackets organization that are currently stealing headlines at the Traverse City NHL Prospects Tournament
. Many of those aspiring NHLers will be in Columbus for training camp.
“We’ve been keeping track. There’s a lot of skilled players in Traverse and we’ve got good players in our system," said Ryan Murray, who played with the Blue Jackets’ prospect team in Traverse City last year. “It’s very good to see and I think it gets everyone excited.”
Murray said he hoped to make more progress with his overall game in his second season, looking to make himself a better power play option for the Jackets this year. But regardless of the amount of time spent on the ice during the summer, training camp is still training camp and it’s still a challenge.
“It’s hard to get to the level of training camp because it’s a very fast pace and it’s very intense out there," Murray said. "But I think we’ve slowly built throughout the summer and we’re at the point right now where a lot of guys are in great shape.
“Physical testing is going to probably be the worst part. We’ll see how those go, but they’re never fun.”