Virtually every kid in America has played catch with a baseball and a glove, and tried to hit pitched balls. Almost all have shot a few hoops in their day, and almost all have thrown a football around. But not nearly as many have laced up a pair of hockey skates, taken to the ice shot a few pucks around. That may be why ice hockey is among the least understood of the major sports; some of the people writing about it have never played the sport.
With that in mind, the Washington Capitals hosted the team’s first media fantasy camp at Kettler Capitals Iceplex on Tuesday. A large contingent of print and electronic media from both local and national media outlets took to the ice for some instruction in the finer points of the game from several Caps players and coaches.
Before hitting the sheet, the media folk assembled in the theatre for a video session on power play strategy. Caps coach Bruce Boudreau illustrated a few different techniques the Capitals use to break the puck out of their end on the power play and talked a bit about how the team likes to operate once it gets the puck down into the offensive zone.
He showed several examples, including one that was near and dear to his heart.
“This is the first game that I coached [in the NHL],” said Boudreau, illustrating with a laser pointer. “I said, ‘Listen, let’s set up with Alex [Ovechkin] in the middle today.’ This was like two minutes into my first game. I said, ‘I want Mike Green
over here. Everybody will look at Alex. We’ll pass it over to Mike and he’ll score.’ They all looked at me like I had two heads when I said that.
“Then Nicky [Backstrom] does this. They’re all looking at Alex. He throws it over to Mike Green
. He scores two and a half minutes into my first game. I yell at the bench, ‘I knew what the hell I was talking about!’”
“So it worked out pretty well.”
the ice, the players were split into groups based on the level of their ability. They were schooled in skating, shooting, stickhandling and even fighting, courtesy noted authority Donald Brashear.
Plenty – but not all -- of the campers were quite accomplished on the blades.
“I’ve probably ice skated twice in my life,” said columnist Peter Schmuck of The Baltimore Sun
. “Maybe twice.”
Schmuck bounced off the hard ice once while taking a shot, but he’s a tough hombre and was none the worse for wear afterwards. Well, more or less.
“Where’s the fantasy training room?” he quipped in the locker room after the session.
The tutorial session was followed by a scrimmage. Caps radio play-by-play voice Steve Kolbe was in net for one of the teams. Kolbe was one of the many accomplished players on the ice Tuesday; he’s a veteran of men’s leagues and is frequently found between the pipes at charity events.
“I’ll tell you what, that Scott Linn had some wheels out there,” observed Kolbe afterwards. “He looked like a fireball blasting down the ice on occasion. [Fox 5’s Dave] Feldman looked great in the neutral zone but by the time he got to the offensive zone, he was gassed.”
The media types proved as adept as their athlete counterparts in the art of locker room trash-talking.
“Hey Feldy, how come you’re walking faster than you skated?” Linn needled.
Regardless of skill level, a great time was had by all.
“I think you just want to give everybody an appreciation for how hard it is, what these guys do,” said Caps media relations director Nate Ewell, who hatched the idea and carried it out. “And that goes for everybody from Chris Clark shooting the puck to Donald Brashear fighting. Every little aspect of this game is hard, and part of that is because you’re on skates.”
Schmuck is one of the best baseball writers there is, but even though he grew up in Southern California, he’s not a total hockey novice.
“I already knew how great they are,” he said, referring to NHL players. “I go to games once in a while; the athleticism is unbelievable. If you’re up close watching NHL hockey, you know what kind of athletes these guys are.
“It was fun to get out and slide around the ice. But I’m going to have to take solace that maybe at once in my life I could hit a curveball. [The age of] 53 is not the time to take up hockey, I can tell you that.”
Sarah Turcotte of ESPN the Magazine is young enough to take up hockey, and she just might do so, after taking her first ever twirl at fantasy camp on Tuesday.
“It’s not as easy as it looks, I’ll tell you that,” she said. “You’re always impressed by what they do, and they’re magicians out there. But I think I really underestimated how hard it would be, because I have friends who play and they make it look so easy. Just the little things like the [skate] edges, and you try to take a wrist shot and you’re wobbling all over the place. I didn’t know how much my ankles would hurt after only an hour. But it was great. I really had a great time.
“I want to learn how to skate now because I really enjoyed it."
Like many of the participants and spectators, Schmuck particularly enjoyed the punching lesson.
“I thought the Donald Brashear seminar on fighting was a lot of fun,” he said. “I think it kind of plays to the stereotype a little bit about hockey, but that’s okay. Have some fun with it. I just enjoyed being out there. I thought it was a great thing the Caps did in putting this on. It’s a great idea.”
“We’re lucky,” admitted Ewell. “We have a really cooperative training staff and equipment staff that lets us use the locker room for something like this. And obviously Bruce Boudreau gave us a little expertise and let people see a little bit behind the scenes. They usually are out here waiting for the guys to get out of that video room.”
Linn is a hockey lover from way back, a guy who is sometimes seen as a voice in the wilderness in these parts when it comes to staunch advocates of the game in the local media. He was grinning like a school kid on a Saturday when it was over.
“This was a great time,” exuded Linn. “I really appreciate the fact that [GM] George [McPhee] was cool with this, that the PR staff – as great as they are – opens up the locker room. Are you kidding me? We had total access. Sitting in the stalls!
“As a kid who played rec league, street league, whatever, growing up you dream of stuff like this. For a pro team to clear out their ice and then a couple of the pros show up – Brent Johnson, Matt Bradley, Chris Clark, Donald Brashear, Boyd Gordon, Dean Evason – they made room for us and put us through the rigors.
“The smiles were the best part. The fact that they made time for us was the best part. The fact that I’m standing here talking to you and not in a hospital bed is probably the best part.”
The experience should certainly get the scribes, the talking heads and the behind-the-scenes types excited for the start of the NHL season. And they’ll be able to follow up their on-ice hockey experience with a media fantasy league now, a good opportunity to continue the trash talking.
Draft day is just around the corner. It won’t be long now.