Steve Thomas could vividly recall his first training camp as a young NHL hopeful in the early 1980s. Now, nearly a decade after wrapping up an impressive playing career, highlighted by 933 points in 1,235 NHL games, Thomas will once again attend another prospects camp, but as the Tampa Bay Lightning’s player development consultant with the hopes that 30 additional NHL prospects will someday enjoy the same success he did.
Thomas will spearhead the Bolts’ 2011 Development Camp, which hits the ice Thursday, July 7 and concludes July 12 at the Ice Sports Forum in Brandon. Attending the camp will be a number of the organization’s most highly-touted prospects, including three former first-round picks, totaling 17 forwards, nine defensemen and four goaltenders.
While the main initiative of the camp will be to gauge each player’s performance in a number of on-ice drills as well as a series of strength and conditioning workouts away from the playing surface, the attendees will also enjoy a wide variety of team-building activities that are intended to be both instrumental in building a rapport and having fun.
“As young prospects, every one of them wants to make it to the NHL,” Thomas said. “We want them to work hard so they can see what it’s like at the pro level.”
Of the 30 individuals invited to attend the camp, a majority, including former first-round selections Carter Ashton and Brett Connolly, as well as other skilled players such as Mark Barberio, Radko Gudas, Dustin Tokarski, James Wright and Richard Panik, will all return this year after attending last summer’s camp. Vladislav Namestnikov, the club’s first overall selection in last month’s draft, along with fellow 2011 selections Ondrej Palat and Adam Wilcox, will be joined by the likes of invitees Cory Conacher, Seth Griffith and Jeff Dimmen. That group will be making their development camp debuts.
While some may be familiar with the day-to-day schedule of the camp and others will see it for the first time, all participants can expect to take part in rigorous drills aimed at honing in on specific skill sets. Thomas noted that among the on-ice sessions planned are speed and agility exercises facilitated by a professional power skating coach, drills in shot accuracy with a well-renowned shooting instructor, team scrimmages and a three-on-three tournament which is expected be a crowd-favorite, as hockey fans throughout the Bay Area are welcome to attend the on-ice portions of the camp.
The intense workouts to be performed both on the playing surface and in the gym, however, are not indicative of what many outsiders misperceive to be a competition for a roster spot among potential future teammates.
To counter the hockey-related portion of the game, there are just as many off-the-ice activities designed for the players’ enjoyment which are also intended to strengthen team chemistry among attendees spanning a wide variety of backgrounds. Throughout the week the Lightning hopefuls will head out to a baseball game, as well as participate in a scavenger hunt around town.
“We’ve seen these players and we’ve even drafted some of them so we know what they’re all about,” Thomas added. “If anything, the camp will be a strong determining factor in getting these kids ready for the NHL, which extends beyond just what they do on the ice. It isn’t necessary for any one individual to go out there and try and prove himself.”
In the certain case of a few particular players, some already have.
According to Thomas, among the most impressive prospects attending camp are Ashton, whose style of play is comparable to Columbus Blue Jackets forward Rick Nash, as well as Gudas, who Thomas praised for his physical play and uncanny ability to deliver clean open-ice hits on opponents. Connolly and Namestnikov also posses a flashy skill set that is sure to wow not only the Lightning brass, but fans and fellow potential Bolts alike.
The younger players making their development camp debut also have the privilege of working with a handful of players, such as these, who have played in the professional ranks of the American Hockey League and whose experience will undoubtedly rub off on those getting on the NHL track for the first time.
The camp possesses not only players who were acquired by various methods – all prospects were either drafted, signed as free agents or invited by the team to attend – but those who have displayed their skills on all different stages, including the AHL, ECHL, NCAA and the CHL. Of all the attendees, only James Wright played in the NHL last season, skating in one game with the Lightning.
Despite the varying ages, skill levels and backgrounds of the players, Thomas says the goal of the camp is the same for everyone.
“More than anything, this week is all about giving the boys a real good experience,” Thomas said. “But don’t get me wrong. There is a lot of talent here and there will be some assessment of that, but I think that is a testament to these boys and to our organization for developing them the proper way to become great hockey players. There is so much for both myself, the coaching staff and for the prospects to look forward to, but first that we want to ease them in to what NHL life is really like.”
For many though, it won’t be long until they experience it for themselves.