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How off-season development has evolved

by Dana Wakiji / Detroit Red Wings
Defenseman Jordan Sambrook, the Red Wings' fifth-round pick in last month's NHL draft, skates during last Friday's development camp scrimmage in Traverse City. (Photo by Dan Mannes/Detroit Red Wings)

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. – Development camps are an ever-evolving thing in hockey.

The Red Wings wrapped up their development camp Sunday in Traverse City, five days in which the players learned skills on and off the ice and developed bonds with each other.

It hasn't always been that way.

"I didn’t have a development camp, that’s how old I am," said Kris Draper, assistant to the general manager. "(General manager) Ken (Holland) might know when they started but for me it was basically I was drafted in '89 by Winnipeg. I know I did a fitness test at York University. It was basically the draft picks in the Toronto area. There we did a VO2 (maximum rate of oxygen consumption), we did a Wingate, and I think we did body fat, and then the results were sent to Winnipeg, and all I know is that I had to be there in September for training camp. That was it. There was no contact."

By the time that Jiri Fischer was drafted nine years later in 1998, teams had started holding development camps and the Wings had theirs at the Troy Sports Center in metro Detroit.

"It was after back-to-back winning Stanley Cup championships," Fischer said. "So the Stanley Cup was present, which is obviously the ultimate for all the players to see. I learned first-hand that if you touch the Stanley Cup before you win it, you'll never win it, it's a complete hoax. We were all hugging it left and right. I was 17 at the time. It was fantastic when Scotty Bowman showed up and the on-ice sessions were run by assistant coaches in Detroit so Barry Smith and Dave Lewis, they were running the on-ice sessions and then back then it was John Wharton who was the strength coach for Detroit, along with Barry Smith's brother who was running the off-ice, who is the strength coach for the referees in the NHL now.

"Ken Holland brought in an instructor for spinning and yoga and part of the off-ice sessions. We worked, worked, worked. I was never cramping up as much playing hockey as I was in that camp ever. We were on the ice in the morning, we were off-ice in the morning, we were on the ice in the afternoon, we had off-ice in the afternoon. So the Red Wings organization at the time, looking at it as a player, they really made us work. That was the theme back then."

Fast forward 18 years later and Fischer is the director of player development, the one who helps create the format of what happens in camp.

Each day the players generally have on-ice skills work in groups, on-ice practice with nearly everyone, then off-ice workouts.

Later in the day, there are off-ice competitions in ping-pong, cooking and curling, which take place on days when there are no scrimmages.

Fischer said hockey is becoming more specialized and players are expected to work out during the offseason.

Many have their own personal trainers.

"Everybody is being pushed in the offseason so we really try to use this camp to take guys to the next level in understanding what their limitations are, what their strengths are so when they leave the camp, they have some sort of a plan to tackle their limitations and improve their strengths as well," Fischer said. "That's what we believe in, that everybody has to be special in order to survive in the NHL."

If they do survive and make it to the NHL, they will likely be playing with some of the same guys who were at development camp with them.

Detroit's first-round pick from last month's NHL draft, Dennis Cholowski, is from western Canada and did not know any of the players before camp.

But Cholowski roomed with second-round pick Givani Smith, an outgoing guy from the Toronto area who already knew several other players from playing with them in Guelph or playing against them around Toronto.

"When our generation was going through the camp, there was no social media," Fischer said. "Most guys didn't have cell phones in the camp. There was no face-timing and Skyping and Viber overseas and What's apps and ways to communicate. So you had to call somebody in order to talk to them or it was face to face when we got together. Now they can stay in touch the entire year so we really hope by guys using all these modern, wonderful tools that we get to enjoy, that they kick off a little bit of a start of a relationship as teammates and carry it on for the rest of the year."

It's also an opportunity for players to establish relationships with others in the organization.

"I think it’s important for the young guys to come in and get comfortable," Wings coach Jeff Blashill said. "Be around Ken Holland, be around the coaching staffs so when they come to main camp it’s not as awe-ing. It’s a little more comfortable and I think when people are comfortable you usually get their best. So I think that’s a big factor. If they can take home a little bit of how hard you have to train, how much attention to detail you have to pay, I think it’s a benefit to us and to them."

Although he never experienced development camp as a player, Draper believes these camps are very beneficial for these young prospects.

"I think it’s a great week of education for all of these guys on and off the ice," Draper said. "You get to go upstairs with the strength coach of the Red Wings and Grand Rapids Griffins and they’re gonna teach you technique and how to lift and the expectations of what you need to do in the gym, and obviously the rest side of it too. On the nutrition part you have Lisa McDowell that’s working with you, so we want to give all these kids as much information as we can over the next five or six days, and they’re gonna take it back for the summer and then we see a lot of these players for the prospects tournament in September."

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