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Showcase rookies eager to compete for NHL jobs

by Arpon Basu

TORONTO -- It's been a long summer for the prospects looking to fulfill a lifelong dream and reach the NHL this fall.

But that wait came to an end Monday. At least it felt that way.

The National Hockey League Players' Association invited 39 NHL prospects and rookies here for the two-day NHLPA Rookie Showcase.

"It definitely felt more like summer yesterday than it did today," Columbus Blue Jackets forward prospect Sonny Milano said. "Now it feels like the season's kind of starting up."

The event included prospects from 26 of the NHL's 30 teams, including the top two picks in the 2015 NHL Draft, No. 1 Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers and No. 2 Jack Eichel of the Buffalo Sabres.

"It's starting," Montreal Canadiens goaltending prospect Zachary Fucale said. "These things like this, it's good to be around some old teammates and some of the guys I played with at the World Juniors, and I played against a lot of the guys here. So it's good to talk to some of the guys about that."

The one thing most of the players were eager to do was get their careers going on the ice and stop talking about it.

"I'm getting really antsy," said Carolina Hurricanes defense prospect Noah Hanifin, the No. 5 pick at the 2015 draft. "There's been a lot of off time, a lot of talking. Just being at the draft, the combine and everything, it's all kind of for one thing and that's to play in the NHL. It's pretty close now. I'm getting really excited just to go to camp."

Hanifin and several prospects will leave next week to take part in rookie tournaments in Traverse City, Mich.; London, Ontario; Penticton, British Columbia; or Estero, Fla.

Minnesota Wild defenseman Mike Reilly will be going to the Traverse City tournament. This event gave him an opportunity to see how his peers are feeling on the cusp of perhaps the most important month of their hockey lives.

"It's been a lot of anticipation for September to roll around and get camp going," Reilly said. "So it's great to come to an event like this and meet a lot of guys that are going to be in the NHL really soon. It's pretty cool and pretty special."

The seventh annual event allows Upper Deck, the official trading card partner of the NHL and NHLPA, to photograph and film the next wave of talent in their NHL uniform and get their autographs on cards and other memorabilia. The players were photographed by Getty Images and on Tuesday will meet with the media.

In addition to those official responsibilities, the event allows the prospects to have some fun together before embarking on careers as rivals, with a dinner at the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday and a video game tournament at the wrapup dinner on Tuesday.

All of the players have participated in big hockey events before, whether it was the IIHF World Junior Championship or their debut in junior or in college. But what is coming over the next few weeks is different and preparing for that has been a unique challenge.

"When you look at something like the World Juniors or other tournaments I've played in for my country, it's a totally different type of feel," Hanifin said. "This is for the NHL, this is for my lifelong dream. It's becoming a job now. Everybody's fighting for a spot, it's more of a business now. But at the same time it's so exciting, it's something new for me and my family to go on this journey.

"I think the excitement factor is just as high, if not higher, at this point in my career."

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