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There's no question the Pittsburgh Penguins are one of the NHL's flagship franchises. Teams that sport top-end talent like the Penguins are marquee attraction in any sport.
"You just need to look at the core of this team -- six All-Star players," said Pascal Dupuis
, a forward who joined the Penguins last season. "You play with these guys and all they want is winning. They work hard, they practice hard. These guys, eat, sleep and breathe hockey."
And, as a result, the Penguins are in great demand when the League wants to showcase its exciting product. That's to be expected when Sidney Crosby
, the face of the Penguins, is the most-exciting and most in-demand player in the game today.
Last winter, the Penguins were chosen to play Buffalo in the Winter Classic on New Year's Day, a game that was filled with the type of pageantry and hoopla usually reserved for the postseason. Later, that season the Penguins fought their way to the Stanley Cup Final -- the game's biggest stage -- before falling to Detroit in six games.
Now, the Penguins are in Sweden as ambassadors of the game.
They are spending 10 days here as part of Bridgestone NHL Premiere 2008, spreading the NHL gospel in a country that is already in love with the game. That mission will be capped by a pair of regular-season games against Ottawa this weekend at the Globe Arena.
Such duties come with the requisite hardships -- the logistical nightmares that come with adopting a new routine, resetting body clocks and the like -- but the Pens are willing to deal with those negatives in order to experience the unique opportunities they have been afforded in the past 10 months.
"We've gotten to play in some pretty cool events like the Winter Classic, and now we're here," Crosby said. "We're pretty fortunate to be chosen. It's going to be a great experience."
Michel Therrien, the team's no-nonsense coach has stressed all summer that the Penguins must get off to a hot start this season if they hope to return to the Stanley Cup Final. So, you would think packing up and heading to Sweden -- a land of bigger rinks, different food and disrupted sleep -- does not fit into the hot-start equation.
"We're fortunate to be a part of these things," Therrien told NHL.com Monday. "The Winter Classic was a great experience for us and we were looking forward to it for a long time. We're fortunate to be involved in events like these. That's the way we look at it. We see the positives."
Penguin General Manager Ray Shero was singing a similar song Monday as his team went through a strenuous practice at the Hovet Arena. Shero has been to Stockholm several times to scout tournaments here and loves the city. He is glad his team can experience such a magical place, especially those players from North America who have never been abroad.
More importantly, he is glad the Penguins have this time to bond and develop team chemistry. The Penguins have several new faces in the lineup, so riding the bus to the arena, sightseeing and the long flights force the players to interact and gel as a unit.
"We need to develop chemistry and you do that through everyday experiences," Dupuis told NHL.com. "We have a lot of guys that went to the Stanley Cup Final and have that set of experiences and we have some guys that are new and don't have that experience. We need to work everyone into the team and you do that now. Things happen and you have fun in the room and on the ice and that is the way you build a team."
For the past few years, the Penguins had used a training-camp trip to West Point to engage in team building. That trip was put on hold this time because of Pittsburgh's condensed training-camp schedule. Instead, the team is using this opportunity to accomplish the same goals. For example, the Penguins will break into small groups and go on a city-wide scavenger hunt Tuesday afternoon.
Our main focus is toward working hard and being prepared and we are making sure we take that time while we are here. - Penguins Coach, Michel Therrien
"Our main focus is toward working hard and being prepared and we are making sure we take that time while we are here," said Therrien.
But they are also trying to have as much fun as possible. Because these young Penguins have already learned that with great responsibility comes great opportunity. Those who remain from last January's Winter Classic know they experienced one of the defining events of their hockey careers. Today, they cherish the memories.
Shero said he was too busy last season to get caught up in the hype for the Winter Classic. It wasn't until the team left for Buffalo that the enormity of the event began to sink in.
"Personally, I just didn't have the excitement building up because the game came in the meat of our season," Shero said. "Then, we got to Buffalo and we went out for the first practice. The lights were on at the stadium, Buffalo was practicing and it was snowing and that is when it hit me. Looking back, that game was one of the highlights of my career; no doubt."
This trip, however, is catching up quickly.
"I think, at the end, regardless of outcome, we'll say what an experience this was," Shero said.
Author: Shawn P. Roarke | NHL.com Managing Editor