For the first time in nearly 17 months, the Nashville Predators are on the ice. All 56 training camp attendees hit the rink Tuesday as part of Day Two practices the first official skating sessions since the Predators' inaugural playoff run ended on April 17, 2004. The prolonged labor dispute that followed not only prevented camps from opening as usual last September, but it cancelled a National Hockey League season as well.
"A year off felt like an eternity," Predators forward Jeremy Stevenson said after participating in an informal on-ice workout at Centennial Sportsplex earlier this month. "Hockey players are born and raised just to play hockey, and all of the sudden you lose that for a year--man, you're just biting at the bit to come back. A lot of guys I have talked to are saying, Lets hurry up and get this thing going.' If we could start right now, I'm pretty sure we would."
It's been an especially long wait for players like recent Predators acquisition Paul Kariya, who used the NHL's down time to fully recuperate from a few lingering injuries rather than play with a team in Europe or elsewhere.
"It was a long time coming," Kariya said of training camp soon after completing his team physical on Monday. Like Stevenson, Kariya came to Nashville in advance of camp to join other Predators in informal skates at the team's practice facility. "It's a great group of guys and we have a lot of fun out there," Kariya said. "It's nice to just get to know the guys little bit better and you can get a good impression on how guys play and what their strengths are. It's good to do that before camp."
Head coach Barry Trotz explained Monday that this year's camp is structured as a series of phases. The first extends through Friday and will have the players organized into three teams participating in practices and scrimmages. "What it does is allow everybody to integrate," he said. "One thing about being a Nashville Predator is we have to integrate you into our culture, make you feel a part of the organization. That's what our No. 1 thing is. It's a little bit of team bonding. We're going to have a little competition.... Every scrimmage will have a five-on-five, a four-on-four, and a shootout element in it, because those are part of our game now."
These scrimmages will allow Nashville's hockey operations staff to evaluate players and determine who will go home and who will remain for phase two of camp. "Then we'll get into two groups," Trotz continued. "We will have a couple of practices and then we'll get into another scrimmage phase where we'll get prepped up before the preseason. The first four preseason games will determine probably 25 to 26 guys that will go into the last phase, which will be the last three preseason games. From that we're going to have to pick 22 or 23 guys [for the final roster]."
The age range of players at this year's camp is 18 to 34, and a handful of the very youngest--some of whom were only drafted by the Predators a month and a half ago--arrived in Nashville a week early to participate in a rookie mini-camp. They skated at the Predators' training facility, participated in work-outs led by strength and conditioning coach David Good, and were welcomed by several veteran Predators already in town. For these teens, this year's stay in Nashville will be short-lived, but this initial experience is as much about inspiration as it is about perspiration.
"The guys who are around here as veterans, they feel like they're still young guys," said forward Scottie Upshall, now attending his third Predators camp. "They still love coming to the rink. They're walking around with smiles on their faces. It's good for the younger guys who just get drafted and come into camp to be surrounded by people who enjoy being here. Their work ethic sets a tone."
This year's new faces seem ready to take advantage of the opportunity.
"It's just a learning experience for me this year to see what it takes to play at this level," said Scott Todd, the first of two players selected by the Predators in the seventh round of the 2005 NHL Entry Draft. "I'll hopefully come back next year knowing what to expect and have a shot to play [with the Predators' American Hockey League affiliate] in Milwaukee or somewhere in the system."
August free-agent signing Scott Nichol remembers the feeling, and despite being in his first Predators camp this year, makes an effort to help the camp rookies get their bearings. "I try and talk to most of the young guys," Nichol said Monday. "My first camp was in Buffalo. I got drafted by them, and that's when they had [Alexander] Mogilny, [Pat] LaFontaine and Grant Fuhr and [Dominik] Hasek—all those superstars. And I remember watching those guys growing up and playing street hockey, pretending to be one of those guys. I know what these young guys are going through. They're nervous, and I'm even nervous. We've had a year off and I think everyone has the butterflies in their stomachs. You don't know how you're going to react after a year, even though you do play somewhere else it's not the same as the NHL level."
The consensus among Predators players is that this 2005 training camp is more exciting than most for a variety of reasons: the long-awaited return of NHL hockey; the addition of new rules that showcase the speed and skill in the game; and the optimism associated with integrating promising new names into a lineup that found success in 2003-04.
While the enthusiasm surrounding Nashville's 2005 Training Camp is on the rise, a player's approach to these first few weeks remains constant.
"I think mentally you approach training camp the same way every year," said Predators defenseman Mark Eaton. "You want to come in the first day after a hard summer in good shape and just get better every day in training camp. Then use that to build yourself up for the long and grueling season."