After a long hiatus, the excitement level within the Tampa Bay Times Forum returned on Sunday and proved to again be at an all-time high.
There were smiles all around, hugs and handshakes, too, as well as a few cordial greetings exchanged among those sharing a common interest.
And that’s speaking merely in terms of just the fans.
Hockey is back, and as far as the Tampa Bay Lightning players go, everybody is checked in, and in theory, ready to go.
After holding days of informal practices in Brandon to test and see if their bodies adequately prepared over the past several months, the Bolts coaching staff and management team turned the boys loose at Fan Fest on Sunday, as players took to the ice to officially kick off the team’s 2013 training camp.
Aside from assessing potential line combinations, head coach Guy Boucher also got to take a look at a number of prospects including Cory Conacher, Mike Angelidis, Keith Aulie and Pierre-Cedric Labrie, all of whom have spent the entire season with the club’s top minor-league affiliate in Syracuse of the American Hockey League.
“It was like the first day of school again, being back here this morning,” forward Steven Stamkos said. “As players, we’re all anxious to get going here and it was great to see how many fans came out to support us.”
Fan Fest marked the first on-ice session in an official capacity, including coaches and all, after the NHL Players Association signed a Memorandum of Understanding that brought an end to the lockout. The new Collective Bargaining Agreement also had been ratified just days earlier, with the completion of both items signaling a return to normal business operations.
On Sunday, the team’s first real practice of the season, in fact seemed at times all too normal.
Martin St. Louis listens in the locker room as Lightning Chairman and Governor Jeff Vinik addresses players to open Training Camp.
Near the boards, Boucher could be seen furiously drawing up plays with his patented stern glare. Players, skating hard in figure-eight patterns, were coming off the ice sweating profusely. Even television play-by-play announcer Rick Peckham quipped, “it’s a game-type atmosphere,” over the public address system following a pre-puck drop video presentation that us typically reserved for Lightning home games.
The idea, of course, is to push the players in order for them to make the most of a six-day camp leading to Saturday's season opener against the Washington Capitals. But with a short camp that this year features no exhibition games, what should be an intense, lockout-shortened 48-game season requires not only a fast start, but just as much a degree of consistency down the stretch.
For that, Boucher said camp will mostly feature a lot of scrimmaging, which in addition to its physical aspect, also forces players to constantly think in the same mindset they do for games.
“We’re obviously going to have to act a little differently at training camp than what we’re used to,” Boucher said. “It’s going to be physical, it’s going to be intense, and we’ve got a lot of things we can do to accelerate the process.”
As of Sunday, Boucher already has.