More than a week before the start of the Rangers' 2006 training camp, several Blueshirts veterans and prospects were already working out and skating on their own at the Madison Square Garden Training Center -- all looking ahead to the new season with great excitement.
Nearly 20 players spent several hours running themselves through off-ice drills and on-ice scrimmages on Wednesday. Rangers veterans on hand included defensemen Darius Kasparaitis, Michal Rozsival, Fedor Tyutin, and Karel Rachunek and forwards Michael Nylander, Petr Prucha, Jed Ortmeyer, and Jason Ward. They were joined by off-season free agent additions Brendan Shanahan, who was skating with his new teammates for the first time, and Adam Hall, who was acquired from Nashville.
The veteran players also engaged in off-ice drills along with the prospects arriving at the training center to prepare for the upcoming Traverse City Prospects Tournament, which begins on Friday night in Traverse City, Mich.
Showing up early for training camp has become standard practice throughout the NHL, where players work year-round on their conditioning.
"I like to get situated before I get here," said Ward, who recently returned to New York from a summer in the Toronto area. "I don't like coming in the day before and then all of a sudden getting thrown right into camp. I like to come out and be in the area and start to feel comfortable here again."
Like his teammates, Ward was genuinely enthusiastic about the upcoming season and said it felt great to return to the Training Center -- a more familiar atmosphere than his first days there last year.
"It's definitely more comforting than it was last year," he said. "Now I know a lot of the guys. It's always nice when you walk in the room and you know the training staff. It's nice to see the familiar faces that you saw last year."
Across the locker room from Ward, Shanahan was the one being introduced to people, as he found himself with new teammates for the first time since he was traded to Detroit in 1996. Shanahan said he is always excited at this time of year, but being with the Rangers made the upcoming training camp truly special. He said he was looking forward to the opportunity to get to know the other players and to provide some leadership for the younger prospects in camp.
"Anytime you add a player of his caliber, you're definitely excited," Ward said of Shanahan. "I'm really looking forward to this year and what he can bring."
Kasparaitis shared Ward's enthusiasm for having Shanahan aboard and said he felt very good about all of the Rangers' off-season moves.
"We've brought in some character players and some finesse players. Some guys who can score, play hard and have experience winning Stanley Cups. ... I think Brendan will help our team a lot."
Rangers head coach Tom Renney, who won't begin working with the players until camp opens on Sept. 14, was also at the training center on Wednesday and met with reporters to discuss the upcoming season. One question concerned the team's approach to this season as compared to last, when the Rangers defied preseason predictions to emerge as one of the conference's top teams.
"I don't think we'll take anybody by surprise now," said Renney. "I think they realize that we've made a serious attempt to change the perception of our team if nothing else. I don't think anybody will take the Rangers for granted or take us lightly."
Renney said that the rebuilding mindset, which dominated last season, has not left the coaching staff heading into training camp.
"I'm all about process, and this is still very much a process," Renney said. "I think any coach wants to leave behind a legacy of having gotten things going in the right direction if not having won the Stanley Cup. I want to win the Cup. I want to win it here and I want to win it as soon as possible. At the same time, I want to make sure that our mark is such that we've created an identity for this team that is respected from top to bottom in this league and will also stand the test of time. To do that, you have to invest in long-term decisions. ... So we are still paying a lot of attention to rebuilding the New York Rangers in a way that will stand the test of time."
One decision facing the coaches at training camp is how to integrate talented young prospects into a veteran Rangers lineup. Recognizing the depth of the Rangers' organization, Renney said he'll have his eyes on several players at the upcoming Traverse City tournament as well as the main Rangers training camp.
"I want these guys to be involved in every minute of this camp as long as possible so we can make an honest assessment of where they are," he said. "If we have to make tough decisions on them or on someone else because of them, well, that's the game. And we're OK with that. ... I don't want to fall into the trap of saying there's only one spot or two spots open, but I also don't want to fall into the trap of saying everything's open. The bottom line is we have to keep an open mind here to solid, ready performances that will be able to help our team move itself to what we all want to get, and that's the Stanley Cup."
Renney said the Rangers are heading into training camp in good health, although Ortmeyer's status would remain uncertain as the winger recovers from a pulmonary embolism suffered this summer. Ortmeyer is currently working out and skating with the team, although he must avoid contact for some time.
"Orty's doing pretty good," said Renney. "He saw the doctors last Friday, and it sounds like it's pretty much dissipated. The medicine has worked well from that point of view. He can still train with no contact. They have to make sure they've got that completely under control and that there's no risk to playing hockey. That's going to take time. But he's doing very well. I think his mind is more at peace now than it was a week ago or a few weeks ago."
Ortmeyer's presence at the Training Center this week has helped to lift the spirits of his already eager teammates, who are counting the days until camp officially begins.
"Your number one goal every year is to win the Stanley Cup," said Ward. "If that's not your goal, then you shouldn't be playing. Every year you've got to think that you can do that. Last year was a big building block for this organization, and we believed that we could win. That was a big thing, but we can't get comfortable thinking that we can win. We've got to believe we can win again."