Rookie camp 2014-15 is upon us.
That’s good news; it means the real deal is right around the corner! But no matter whether you’re a Gretzky, a grinder or somewhere in between, everyone runs the gauntlet that is NHL rookie camp. And this is one example of how the game has changed. For the better.
I broke in during the late 80s by way of the Calgary Flames organization. For whatever reason, the Flames rookies played the Vancouver Canucks rookies exclusively. We’d have two or three days of practice to get our legs under us before facing off against the Canucks recruits, and then it was on!
Fighting played a far more prominent role in the game back then. So most players felt that getting in a scrap or two (or three) with someone from the other side was a good way of impressing the decision makers.
We’d typically play the Canucks rookies a handful of times in different small town rinks all over southern British Columbia. Each outing included the same cast of characters, all tough as nails, all desperately trying to stick with the big club anyway, anyhow. This was not pretty hockey. Think Ogelthorpe, Dave “Killer” Carlson and a set of brothers named Hanson, except most of us were just two years out of high school.
I recall one game where we were "hosting" our Canucks counterparts in Calgary. As usual, it was another bloodbath. There were over a dozen fights in the first two periods. I’m sitting in my stall during the second intermission; I had been in three fights by this stage so I thought my night was over. I hung back as the other players filtered out to the ice for the start of the third period. Coach Baxter looks my way and says “What’s with you?” I replied, “I had three fights; I was going to hit the shower.” Baxter scoffed, “Yeah, you’re not. Get out there … you got another 20 minutes to play like everyone else.”
Today, you’ll see a brand of hockey that is far more subdued, at least in terms of the physicality. Rookie camp is a closer simile to NHL style hockey. And this is where the "changed for the better" part comes in. When you stage a Wild West show, as was the custom back then, you create an environment where the smaller and the highly-skilled players are distracted from playing their game. You lose the opportunity to truly evaluate these guys—and all players for that matter—and the camp itself is not nearly as effective.
So here’s to Rookie Camp 2014! And here’s to seeing you out at Ford Ice Center.