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(Photos by Dan Mannes/Detroit Red Wings)
TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. – There were laughs, smiles and jokes being shared as the Red Wings’ prospects boarded the bronze bus that shuttles them between their hotel and Centre I.C.E. Arena.
You’d think they had been friends for years. But most of them had just met seven days ago when they arrived in Traverse City for Detroit’s development camp.
“It’s really a going-to-college time for our younger players,” Assistant General Manager Jim Nill said of the camp. “We draft these players and they’ve been in college, they’ve played in Europe, they’ve been in junior and we bring them in here. They’ve all been the best players where they’ve been and all of a sudden now they start to move up the pyramid and everybody is a good player and we’re trying to make these guys be better players.”
It was an eye-opening experience for the team’s 2012 draft picks, who squared off against other prospects that were as many as seven years older. But it was a competitive atmosphere that the newbies welcomed with open arms.
“It’s great because most of the guys are older than me,” Martin Frk, Detroit’s first draft pick this June, said. “I learn a lot and everything here is more faster so I need to improve at little things and be every day better and better.”
“I think a lot,” James De Haas, the Red Wings’ 170th draft pick in 2012, said of what he learned at camp. “Just how the older guys carry themselves on and off the ice and how you got to work to be able to compete with these guys. I think just little lessons learned from Renzo and Fischer and all the guys that are helping along the way I think that will really help me.”
But the latest draft class members weren’t the only new faces. In addition to the prospects from each of the last six drafts, five free agent players and eight invitees were in attendance. The fresh faces always concern Nill. No one knows how the new players will adapt to the new experience, but he had no reason to worry.
“Some of them don’t speak English yet or very little English,” Nill explained. Some of them haven’t been to North America before so it’s a new test flying into the airport, losing their equipment. So it’s a great learning tool for them but they all adapted very well and as the camp goes on it’s really rewarding to watch them to see how they start to bond with other players and get comfortable.”
For the first few days, the new players hung their heads and averted eye contact, assessing the new teammates and situations they faced. But as quickly as their eyes darted away, Nill said their confidence returned and they were back to being themselves. They had conquered the emotional challenge. The coaches had nothing to worry about when it came to the physical ones.
“We always talk to them that they have a certain criteria to follow and sometimes not all the kids follow it,” Nill said of the prospects’ pre-camp workouts. “But they came to this camp and everybody’s been in great shape. Some of our picks from this year’s draft, I thought Frk was very good, but really I hate to single out individual players because I really thought they all played very hard. They worked very hard off the ice and we just thought it was a great camp.”
Director of Player Development Jiri Fischer was happy that the players tested well on their first day of camp. He said they managed their energy well throughout the strenuous week, but that didn’t surprise him. Fischer had full confidence in the men who discovered these players.
“Our scouts do an outstanding job every year,” Fischer said. “It’s finding the guys who do have potential and now it’s obviously up to development and coaching to help the guys reach their potential, but our scouts have done a phenomenal job.”
The scouts got the players to Traverse City, but it’s up to the prospects to keep training on their own. With a week’s worth of information in their hands, Nill hopes they will continue their new workouts over the next few weeks.
“We don’t want them going home now and saying, ‘Well, I just had this tough camp and I’m going to go home and relax for three weeks,’” Nill said. “We want them to head home and say, ‘What a great experience, I learned this and I have to get to work if I want to be a pro.’ That’s the biggest part, is taking this back home now and continuing to grow.”
After a strong week at camp, Saginaw Spirit goaltender Jake Paterson plans on doing just that. He wants to be ready for training camp this fall.
“I was just looking to learn some things and definitely just try to improve my game,” Paterson said. “I think I did that and I’m looking forward to coming back in September.”
The coaches are looking forward to seeing them again as well. There were quite a few faces, new and old, that caught the eyes of the management.
“The young guys, definitely Mike McKee got some publicity pretty early for being big and skating well and isn’t afraid to stick up for his teammates,” Fischer explained. “So that’s good to have him on board. He’s definitely a different type of player than we’ve drafted in the past so he’s played well.
“I think James De Haas, he really managed the puck really well, he moved it around pretty good. And for Ryan Sproul and Xavier Ouellet, they’re the most recent signed defenseman that we contracted for the next three years. They learned this year that nothing is ever given. I think they went through it okay, but because the expectations are a lot higher now they know that they’re going to have to fight for the spot all the time.”
The 41 prospects fought for those spots for six days. On day seven, they had one more chance: the camp’s second scrimmage. Team Lidstrom ran away with its second victory of the week, notching 6 goals to Team Zetterberg’s 3.
“The scrimmage is always the fun part,” Nill said. “We do all these drills and all these workout things but in the end we’re all kids. We all like to see someone play hockey and have scrimmages.”
But the scrimmage was just the beginning. The players participated in a breakaway contest after the scrimmage’s final buzzer sounded, showing off their skills to fans in a two-round shootout. Seven players advanced to the second round of the competition, but none were able to score. The coach’s decided to give the shootout victory to the goaltenders.
The players weren’t satisfied with that. They demanded another shootout and the University of Minnesota’s Ben Marshall notched the final goal to give Team Zetterberg the win.
It was the perfect end to a long week. Then it was time to board the bus one last time. Development camp had officially come to an end. Some had to catch a plane right away. Others would stick around for a beach barbecue and fly out the following day.
Maybe the players will stay in touch. Maybe they’ll see each other next year. They might never see each other again. But for those seven days, they endured a challenging camp experience together. And that’s a bond they’ll share forever, no matter where their hockey path may lead.