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School's Out

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins
For five days in the middle of July, CONSOL Energy Center was brought back to life.

That’s because 28 prospects converged on Pittsburgh for the team’s annual prospect development camp, where they learned from those in the organization exactly what it means to be a Penguin and what it will take each of them to become a professional.

The Penguins know that in order to have long-term success and to be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender year after year, they must have a strong foundation. And they understand that starts with these young men.

“These guys are the grass roots of our organization,” said Tom Fitzgerald, Penguins assistant to the general manager, who helped run this week’s prospect development camp. “Getting them off to a good head start to their pro career is real important.”

The prospects, who left the city on Sunday morning, are surely bone-tired, as they never stopped moving (both on and off the ice) during their time here.

Their week consisted of medical and fitness testing, off-ice workouts, on-ice sessions, a variety of seminars on topics such as nutrition, NHL security and sports psychology, team-bonding rituals like dinners and bowling – even a cooking class. The camp concluded with a scrimmage that was open to the public.

“The staff and everyone here has done an incredible job accomplishing everything we wanted to accomplish,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s the education part of being a pro hockey player, from the mental side to the nutrition side to the workout side. The truth is the on-ice component is the last thing that we’re looking at. It’s how we feel we can develop players, which are in turn assets.

“In this camp, what we try to do is instill the details and the habits that we like to play with so that when these guys leave here they know exactly how we approach every day and they know exactly what’s expected.”

The players truly took that to heart.

“The way you handle yourself on and off the ice is so important,” said forward Bryan Rust, the Penguins’ third-round pick (80th overall) in 2010. “Your character, your persona – it’s so much more important than some people think. The way you carry yourself and the way you act – it’s so important down the line.”

The week is certainly an eye-opener for the players attending their first camp, especially Pittsburgh’s five picks in the 2011 Entry Draft – all 17- and 18-year-old kids who still have a lot of growth and development ahead of them.

“I’ve always been kind of the stronger kid growing up,” defenseman Joseph Morrow said, the Penguins’ first-round pick (23rd overall) in June. “You come out here and I’m not the stronger kid anymore at all. There are some big guys out here. … I’m going to get stronger, get faster, shoot harder, pass harder.”

A good portion of the players were attending their second, third and even fourth camps. Many of them have signed professional contracts and have spent time with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League (AHL) or Wheeling (ECHL).

The camp is not a competition for a roster spot. But it is an opportunity for these players to show the Penguins brass that they’re receiving the message that is being disseminated to them.

Whether that is shown through leadership (being the first person in line during drills, mentoring the younger prospects) or simply coming in, testing well then working their tails off throughout the week, there’s plenty of opportunities to impress the Penguins staff.

“As long as you come and you’re prepared to work, an opportunity will be yours,” forward Eric Tangradi said. “All you can really do is work hard and everything else will take care of itself.”

When it’s all said and done, there’s one aspect of being a professional hockey player that stood out to the prospects this week – and one they’re taking to heart.

“Just work ethic,” forward Brian Gibbons said. “You see it all over the place here, it’s something they preach. You can tell in their practice habits and the way they do things here. They do things the right way.”
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