MONTREAL - While it not may not have been the Saku Koivus, Mike Ribeiros and Jose Theodores out there just yet, activity on the ice at the Bell Centre was in full swing once again this week, with the Canadiens' stars of tomorrow strutting their stuff in preparation for the annual Rookie Tournament beginning on Wednesday in Ottawa.
For many of the 24 prospects on hand in Montreal for a pair of practice sessions, the week marked their first exposure to the Canadiens family, providing each with a glimpse of what awaits them should they one day make the big club. The skates were run by Canadiens assistant coaches Rick Green and Roland Melanson, as well as Ron Wilson from the team's AHL affiliate in Hamilton.
"I can't tell you how good it feels to be back out there," said Green after practice on Tuesday. "Reaching into my closet this week and dusting off of my Canadiens track suit reminded of how close we're getting to opening night. I can't remember the last time I was this excited to just sharpen my skates and get out there."
If that was the case for the 49-year-old Green, one can appreciate what the week has been like for the two dozen prospects that are busy trying to make a good impression.
"Feeling all the energy and enthusiasm from these kids and seeing the look on their faces when they first step on the ice is really contagious," said Green, who had run this type of camp several years ago alongside then-assistant coach Guy Carbonneau. "What impressed me most this time around and the first time I did this with Carbo was how quickly they all gel as a group. We've got a tremendous group here once again and they all started getting along in no time."
Due to the scaled-down format of this year's entry draft, where only the top 30 picks or so were invited to attend, Canadiens picks like Sergei Kostitsyn, Mathieu Aubin, Juraj Mikus and Matthew D'Agostini only got to meet the likes of Bob Gainey and Claude Julien for the first time this week.
The excitement isn't lost on Green, either, who as a former first overall pick in his own right back in 1976, understands the pressure and expectations put on today's young players.
"Team building sessions and development camps like this were definitely not a part of the equation when Washington drafted me almost 30 years ago," recalled the assistant coach, who began his 15-year NHL career with the Capitals before spending seven seasons on the Canadiens blue line. "In my case, I was joining a young expansion team so the first camp exposure I got was the actual Capitals training camp. There was only one coach to impress back then, and specialized coaches like myself and Rollie simply did not exist.
"The level of scrutiny these players are under from the moment they hear their name called on draft day can be overwhelming," added Green. "We're here to help them along in their development and do whatever we can to see them maximize their potential."
The curriculum being taught this week naturally begins on the ice but does, however, spill over to the classroom. Following their team physicals this week, the players were briefed on survival skills that will arm them with the right tools to hopefully one day take their place in the Canadiens dressing room.
"We go over everything from diet to how to balance their check books," said Green. "There's no question that these young men all have the ability to play this game, but it's up to us to make sure they also have the maturity level needed to succeed at this level."
From an evaluation standpoint, only so much can be drawn from a practice. The true impression left by these youngsters will hinge on their performance in the Rookie Tournament which will run from Sept. 7-10 in Ottawa.
"We're really looking forward to seeing how they put what we've been working on this week to good use in game situations," said Green. "If anyone thinks these guys are fired up now, just wait until they pull on that sweater for the first time and step onto the ice with that 'CH' on their chest."
The Canadiens rookies will first hit the ice on Wednesday afternoon when they take on the Panthers. They'll then play the Maple Leafs on Thursday, the Hurricanes on Friday, and will wrap things up versus the Senators on Saturday night.
Manny Almela is a writer for canadiens.com.