Edmonton, AB - The Edmonton Oilers' 2012 Development Camp kicked off Monday night with a one-hour orientation session hosted by Senior Director of Player Development, Billy Moores.
Following a quick meet-and-greet with the team's medical, equipment, website and player development personnel, 34 prospects (including eight undrafted and/or unsigned invites) took their seats and listened in on Moores' opening address.
"We're not interested in mediocrity," he said.
Having coached the game's greatest star, Wayne Gretzky, Moores knows a thing or two about excellence. Inspiring his class, he told a story about an exchange he had with The Great One and how it applies to the prospects today.
"During practice, Wayne came down the middle and shot a puck that was blocked by the defenceman," he explained. "I said, 'You know, Wayne. You could fake the shot, get him to bite and then shoot it past him.'"
Gretzky was near retirement, had shattered multiple NHL records was on his way to a 90-point season with the New York Rangers at that point.
"If a player like that can be receptive to coaching, everyone should be."
Over the next seven days, each prospect will be exposed to the pro atmosphere; their character revealed as they're vigorously taught the 'Oiler Way.' It's not an evaluation camp. It's an educational tool -- home schooling to some degree, as each prospect works at their own pace in pursuing excellence, both on and off the ice.
According to the orientation's special guest speaker, 12-year NHL veteran Jason Strudwick, the latter is most important.
"In my mind, there are three things that make an NHLer: skill, attitude and work ethic," he said. "Everyone in this room has enough skill to play in the NHL. Just look at me! I played 12 years in the league -- well, basically 11, because I think Billy robbed me of some ice time. It was my best season, Billy!"
Rousing the mood with laughter, Strudwick recalled his experience as a low-impact prospect with the New York Islanders. Then-Head Coach Mike Milbury didn't see anything worth keeping, as he repeatedly told Strudwick he wasn't an NHL-caliber player on his way down to the minors with the AHL's Worcester IceCats and Kentucky Thoroughblades.
"'You can try to organize a trade. But no one will trade for you, no one wants you,' [Milbury] told me. And as he was talking, I was getting smaller and smaller. How does this happen? I was there (in New York) for three days and had barely unpacked my suitcase at the hotel."
But, as it turned out, anger can be quite a motivator.
"No one could help me change my situation but me," he explained. "I was never the most skilled guy in the world, but no one works harder than me. To make it in the NHL, you have to do things no one else will do -- or maybe the guy next to you won't do. Don't skip that workout. He might, but you can't."
Strudwick soon nailed down a roster spot on Millbury's 1997-98 Islanders and was moved to the Vancouver Canucks weeks later. 15 years have passed since then and now he's a veteran of nearly 700 NHL games, including 186 with the Oilers most recently.
Skill applies, but it's the attitude and work ethic that separates the marginal, everyday and elite. It was Strudwick's goal to pass that message along to the 68 ears listening intently to his motivating speech.
"You guys are now members of the Edmonton Oilers. It's a big, proud family," he said. "When you're walking around, you're an Edmonton Oiler. Everything you do represents the Edmonton Oilers.
"Everywhere you go, people are going to remember who you are."
Further expanding on the club's strong, everlasting class and tradition is the purpose. Development Camp will serve to accommodate a player's targeted on-ice program, but it will also help lay the groundwork for the right people and personalities to -- potentially one day -- don the club's iconic orange and blue colours.
"You want them to understand what they have to do, but it's ultimately it's up to them," Strudwick explained, post-orientation. "It's up to them to make the decisions they need to, to make the NHL. I hope they all play in the NHL, but most likely they won't -- and it's because of the decisions they make that they won't.
"I feel there's a message to be shared," he continued. "When I was starting out, no one shared it with me. There's a door to the NHL within sight when you get drafted, but you're not in the door yet. You've got to push your way through."
Swedish prospect Oscar Klefbom was in attendance Monday night -- and he's made it clear he's ready for the challenge. The 18-year-old was sitting on the edge of his seat throughout the presentation, often smiling in anticipation of what promises to be an exciting week ahead.
"Very special. It's so professional," he said. "I don't know how many people are in the Edmonton Oilers organization, but it's so many. It's a special occasion. I'm looking forward to this week; it's going to be really fun.
"I have really good memories of Rexall Place (beating Team Canada in pre-tournament action at the 2012 WJC), but I can't wait to get inside that locker room. Oh my God."
He'll get his chance (and his very own stall) bright and early Tuesday morning. Along with 33 others, it's a taste of what could be as they get an opportunity to be an Oiler.
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com - Follow me on Twitter | @ryandittrick