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For 6 of the Prospects Entering Rookie Pro Season, Development Camp Presents a Big Opportunity

by Jess Isner / Boston Bruins

WILMINGTON — First and foremost, the goal of development camp is to show the prospects in attendance what it means, and what it takes, to be a professional hockey player.

It is one of the most valuable takeaways from a week spent with the Bruins organization, and it is one that all 37 of these prospects cherish.

“It’s very beneficial,” said forward Colby Cave. “There’s a lot of resources around here, a lot of guys that have played in the NHL, coached in the NHL — just guys that have been around the league a long time. Every little thing — whether it’s on the ice, or life tips off the ice — I can really use those tips, and like I said, everyone’s really nice around here, and very business-like, and they treat you like a professional.”

That lesson is perhaps most meaningful to the handful of prospects at this year’s camp who recently signed their entry-level contracts and who plan to be in attendance at rookie camp this fall.

“I think [development camp] just makes them more comfortable — kind of trying to figure out what we expect,” said Bruins Development Coach Jay Pandolfo. “They get a chance to talk to us a little bit, ask questions, and that’s what they’ve done. If you’re just kind of going into a pro camp in September and have never been there, it’s difficult. You kind of don’t know what to expect, you’re a little nervous… I think this camp alone gets some of the nerves out.

“You’re comfortable with the guys, you’re comfortable with what we expect. I think that’s the biggest thing for those guys that are going to be here in training camp.”

Cave inked his contract with Boston in early April after his fourth season with the Swift Current Broncos of the WHL. He and fellow WHLer Justin Hickman signed within about a month of each other, just as the Bruins’ season wound down.

After inking his first professional contract, Cave had the benefit of spending some time with Providence, and though he only played in a single game with the P-Bruins, he got a good taste of what life in the AHL might be like.

“It’s all about hard work in here, and I’m a guy that’s willing to work,” he said. “I’m looking forward to getting to know everybody — it’s my first camp with the Bruins, so I’m kind of a new guy, but I also kind of met everyone when I went down to Providence. It’s been really good, and I’m looking forward to it.”

Like Cave, Frank Vatrano has also had the benefit of spending time with the Providence Bruins since signing his entry-level deal in March. He played in five games with the P-Bruins and had ample practice time with Bruce Cassidy and his staff to get a feel for expectations within the organization.

“Providence, for sure, plays kind of the same style as Boston — hard-nosed, working really hard, and Coach Cassidy really likes guys who work really hard,” Vatrano said. “I think everyone that plays for him really buys into the system and will listen to what he says because everything he says is really good and makes you a better hockey player.”

Though Vatrano has already spent time in the AHL, he has yet to experience his first training camp — that will happen this fall — but that renders this week all the more beneficial for him. It is an extra week spent with Cassidy and his staff, an extra week making sure he is in shape and ready when rookie camp comes around.

“I think it’s huge,” he said. “A lot of guys started their workouts probably at the beginning of this month, so it’s kind of good getting that [work] in between [rookie] camp and main camp, here, and kind of getting on the ice, getting in the workouts.

“The testing is probably the hardest part of camp, and getting exposed to that right away and knowing what to expect when you come to camp so you can be ready — coming into this, especially guys who are going to be in Providence or Boston next year, is a good step.”

And it’s all the more special for someone like Vatrano, a native of East Longmeadow, Mass., who grew up watching the B’s.

“It’s obviously a dream come true,” he said. “I’m playing in Providence, but obviously my goal one day is to play in Boston, and hopefully that comes sooner than later. But I’ve just got to keep working hard, and hopefully everything falls into place.”

Noel Acciari also signed with the Bruins as a free agent, which capped off the perfect junior year at Providence College: It culminated in a national championship with the Friars, claimed on the TD Garden ice in early April.

Little did he know, back then, that he would soon sign with the Garden’s home team.

“It was surreal,” he said. “We played a great team, BU, and both teams had their bounces; we luckily just kind of had that fourth goal, and it’s just been an unbelievable ride so far. Now, [I’m] coming back down to reality and just coming here, [where] the competition is a lot higher. [I’ve] just got to play my game, and play with everyone else.”

Acciari’s introduction to the Bruins organization began on Monday, and thus far, the forward — who led the Friars with 15 goals this past season and was named the NCAA East Regional’s Most Outstanding Player — likes what he sees from development camp.

“It’s very educational — learning how they do things and what they expect — and I think it’s just a great learning experience leading up to [rookie camp], and a great group of guys here,” he said. “I’m having a lot of fun with them, and I’m just kind of learning what [the Bruins] want. So I’m focused on that until after this week is done, and then [I’ll] get ready for the next couple of camps.”

Both Anton Blidh and Colton Hargrove are in a different position than their four new teammates. Both of them have been to quite a few of these camps before, and both of them were drafted by Boston.

And this year, for the first time, both of them are attending development camp as official members of the Boston Bruins.

“I’m very excited,” said Blidh, a native of Molnlycke, Sweden, who signed his entry-level deal in late May. “To come over here and play, it’s a dream.”

The Bruins have been closely monitoring Blidh’s development ever since he was drafted two short years ago. Thus far, they like what they see — enough to give him a shot at becoming a professional in the Spoked-B.

“He’s getting stronger, and he needs that,” said P.J. Axelsson, who spent 11 seasons playing for the Bruins and now serves as a B’s scout based out of Sweden. “He’s always been on the smaller side, but he’s filling out, and he’s developing his defensive skills. I think he actually has a chance to play.

“Obviously, I like him — I’ve seen him a lot. He plays hard. He plays a real Boston style of hockey that I like.”

Of course, Blidh knows that as he makes the transition to the North American game after spending the last two seasons in the Swedish Hockey League, he will have to make some necessary adjustments.

“Here, it’s a smaller rink,” he said. “We have a bigger rink at home. You can shoot everywhere here, and you have to have your head up. There’s a lot of hitting here. And you can take the puck to the net easier here.”

Among the group of recently signed prospects, Hargrove is the veteran. This summer’s camp marked his fourth, and it is also the most special, given the contract he signed with the B’s back in March.

“It’s an awesome feeling to come here officially a Bruin,” he said. “I’m just hoping to have a good camp and come up to Providence in shape, ready to go to start the season. Hopefully, I’ll get some NHL games if I put in the work and get in that top shape. I’m really excited.”

Hargrove is well acquainted with what it means to be a professional. He has spent the last four summers hearing it straight from Don Sweeney, Cassidy, and more recently, Pandolfo. He has taken their words and their instructions to heart over the last three seasons, which he spent at Western Michigan University.

Now, this fall, he’ll apply that knowledge at rookie camp. And as he embarks on this new adventure, he is happy to be doing it alongside someone with whom he has spent the last several summers at development camp — someone who has become one of his best friends in the process.

That would be goaltender Zane McIntyre.

“It’s awesome — we texted a little bit over the summer,” Hargrove said with a big smile. “I texted him — ‘Hey, man, are you going to sign?’ He was like, ‘I don’t know, should I?’ I said do whatever you want to do, and it’s awesome.

“We played together in juniors, and now we’re in the NHL together — or the AHL — so it’s been a lot of fun. It’s been a good journey with him, and playing against him in college, but I think we’re going to have a lot of fun this year.”

After signing, Hargrove took a week-long trip to Providence to get a feel for Cassidy’s system. Now, as he approaches his first professional season, he feels comfortable — comfortable and ready to be making the leap.

“It’s the things you do on the ice and off the ice that really make you who you are,” he said. “You’ve got to work hard every day, in the weight room, on the ice, and go out early if you have to, stay late, and just give 110 percent every time you do anything. So that’s the biggest thing I take away from this [camp], and it’s always fun coming here, meeting new guys, seeing older guys, and just the camaraderie that we create here. It’s a lot of fun.”

Hargrove has spent plenty of time learning what it takes to wear the Spoked-B. Now, the opportunity to do so is well within his grasp, and he has no intention of taking it for granted.

“Obviously, I’m going to put in as much work as I can to try to crack the NHL roster,” he said. “Hopefully, this year or next year, or maybe a few years down the road — who knows? — I’ll be a Boston Bruin instead of a Providence Bruin. Hopefully, that’s where I’ll be.”

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