Participating in an NHL development camp can be a whirlwind of on-ice practices, educational sessions and training.
But for 37 prospects participating in the Blue Jackets development camp earlier this month, their experience was, quite literally, a zoo.
The young players from nine U.S. states, seven European countries, and five Canadian provinces took a break from the confines of Nationwide Arena to take a field trip out the Columbus Zoo, named the No. 1 zoo in the nation by World Zoo Today.
“The Columbus Zoo is a big part of Columbus,” said Blue Jackets development coach Chris Clark.
For Clark, development camp isn’t just a time for prospects to show their skill level on ice, it’s an opportunity to provide the foundational tools for good hockey players on and off the ice.
It’s also a chance to connect the players with the city that is home to their NHL club.
Broken into two groups, the new Jackets took part in behind-the-scenes experiences with manatees, a black rhinoceros, a penguin, baby kangaroos and a baby snow leopard that elicited reactions ranging from laughter to awe.
Even newly drafted Keegan Kolesar, who came to camp with a reputation for his physical play and dominating body checks, took pause when presented with the opportunity to feed Rosie, a 15-year-old (and 1500 lb.-plus) rhinoceros.
“It was crazy just looking at how it eats,” Kolesar said. “It doesn’t use its teeth it uses a long lip so when you go to feed it an apple, it takes your whole hand in its lip. It feels weird, but it was cool.”
Seth Ambroz, a 2011 Jackets draftee and current Lake Erie Monsters forward, was the first player to take on the challenge of feeding Rosie. He called the whole visit to the zoo a highlight of this year’s camp.
“It’s relaxing to do things off the ice,” Ambroz said. “At the same time it’s fun being able to do some things at the zoo that not everyone gets to do. It was a good experience for us – a lot of the guys enjoyed it.”
Ambroz laughed about his group meeting a large pelican that became rather aggressive trying to get food from the prospects. And he wasn’t the only one who left the day with plenty of photos on his phone from meeting animals and visiting exhibits that included bats, lions and snakes.
After touring the zoo, the prospects concluded the afternoon with a buffet dinner and a greater appreciation for the city of Columbus.
“It’s always good to do stuff like this and just take in the city,” said Kolesar, who hails from Brandon, Manitoba. “It’s a very nice city. This place has a million of everything.”