TRAVERSE CITY, MICH. – When Jake Allen thinks about the St. Louis Blues’ first exhibition game later this month, he thinks only of being there in person to see it. If he's in the lineup, well that's great. If he's in the press box watching, that's OK, too.
"It'll be great to even watch it," Allen said. "I have never watched an NHL game in person before."
Amazing, but true.
Allen grew up in Fredericton, N.B., and from there the closest NHL city is Montreal, which is roughly eight hours away if you like to speed. He never had the resources or the time to get to an NHL game – any game, anywhere.
"The only time I have been to an NHL rink is at the draft (in Ottawa)," Allen said.
So, yes, when it comes to training camp rookies, Jake Allen is an extreme case. He is, however, entering the same phase of his budding career as roughly 50 other signed prospects playing in Traverse City and countless others who may earn a contract out of here.
As these untested rookies approach the eve of their NHL training camp, they're all feeling the same jittery excitement.
"You grow up watching the NHL and all of a sudden you have put yourself in that position," Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. "Hockey is a simple game and you have to keep things simple, but I'm still a kid looking at the NHL and saying, 'Wow.' "
As is every other prospect in Traverse City and across the League who has never been to a training camp, but some are more acquainted with the League than others and feel they have a leg up going into training camp. Zach Bogosian, for example, went to Atlanta on Sept. 1 to skate with the NHL players. Bogosian said every Thrashers player, save for Ilya Kovalchuk and Ron Hainsey, were on the ice with him for nearly two weeks before he left for Traverse City.
"It is kind of cool to think about your first training camp and you get some nerves about it, but at least I was down there early and got to skate with some of them so I got to meet them," Bogosian told NHL.com. "Going into training camp, at least I know some of the guys and they have been nice to me. It's easier for me to go in there next week.”
St. Louis goalie Ben Bishop was in the same position earlier this month when he skated in St. Louis with the NHL players, including Paul Kariya and Brad Boyes.
When discussing training camp, Bishop, who played the last three years at the University of Maine, also appears more poised than some of his counterparts because he's a mature 21 years old, not 18 and innocent like Allen.
"I had a chance to play five games in the AHL last year to get a feel for what the game is like," Bishop, who was drafted in 2005, told NHL.com. "Having a couple years of experience in this organization, getting to know everybody, definitely will help."
It should, but the step-up in talent and competition will undoubtedly be an eye-opener for all the first-timers, no matter how old they are and how well they know the established NHLers they'll be competing against.
"They're nervous and thinking they shouldn't be here with the best in the world," Red Wings Assistant GM Jim Nill said of how first-timers react in the first few days of camp, "so they lack a little confidence that way."
Nill also believes training camp for first-timers "is a learning process, like going to school." No matter what teams do – and most hold prospect development camps and/or bring their kids to a tournament like the one in Traverse City – preparing them for what to expect in training camp can be a futile effort. They have to live it to understand it.
"We have our development camp in July and that's where we lay the groundwork, where we give them the speech," Nill said. "We tell them how hard they are going to have to work and they all say, 'Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. No big deal.' We tell them, 'If you're running five miles, well you have to run 10 miles because you're going to get shocked.' And they again say, 'Oh yeah, no big deal.'
"Well, they come to camp and they do fitness testing and all of a sudden Chris Chelios is doing 150 reps of something and they're going to try to keep up with him and they can't. That's when they say, 'Now we know why you said what you said.' "
While most first-timers gaze in awe at some point, some players, such as Detroit goalie Daniel Larsson, said the on-ice portion of training camp shouldn't feel any different than anything he has previously experienced.
"It's still the same game and same puck, but different guys are shooting on you," said Larsson, a Swedish prospect who is training for his first season in North America. "When you're off the ice it's a big deal, but on the ice you just have to focus on the puck and don't care about the players."
Both Rangers defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti and Blues center Patrik Berglund said that's nearly impossible, at least for the regular skaters. Berglund, who participated in his first training camp last year and even centered a line that included Kariya and Boyes, said he was incredibly shy and it took him all of the camp just to feel comfortable with his surroundings and teammates.
Sanguinetti, a Ranger fan growing up in New Jersey, participated in his first training camp in 2006. He said he was somewhat star struck at being on the same ice sheet as Jaromir Jagr and Brendan Shanahan.
"It was tough," Sanguinetti said. "The speed is different. The guys are bigger and stronger, but you can get used to it. As the years go by you get more confidence."
Right now, that is of little comfort for all the first-timers because, as they near the eve of their first NHL training camp, they're all thinking the same thing.
"Hopefully I'm not too nervous when I get in there," Pietrangelo said. "It's a little different being with the big boys."
Contact Dan Rosen at firstname.lastname@example.org