Like a proud father, Assistant General Manager Tom Thompson beams with pride as he shows off the plaque on the wall of his office. The fact that the simple tablet earned a spot among the select group of other cherished mementos signifies its importance. The subject of his grin is the award Wild prospects collected after winning one of the annual NHL Prospects Tournaments in Traverse City, Mich.
“That’s from the 2003 tournament when Harding stood on his head; it was the coming out party for Burns,” Thompson raves.
You only need to look at that 2003 team to realize the Wild places a heavy weight of significance on the tournament. While most of the players representing the Wild won’t play with the NHL club for a few years, if at all, some prospects, like Harding and Burns, use the time to showcase their skills and ultimately convince Thompson and the other men in charge that they deserve a shot in the big-league camp. After all, that’s the point of the whole tournament.
“We’ve always used it as a bridge to our training camp. There are no guarantees; every young guy has to qualify for our main training camp by their play in this tournament.”
The hockey operations staff values the tournament so much that Minnesota has played in Traverse City every year since the team’s inception, excluding the year of the lockout. This week, players will once again represent the Wild, skating Sept. 6-10, and hoping for a shot a shot at the club’s training camp.
A total of eight teams are represented in the tournament this year, including Atlanta, Carolina, Columbus, Dallas, Detroit, Minnesota, the New York Rangers and St. Louis. Minnesota will practice every day and will play Columbus, Dallas, St. Louis and a to-be-determined opponent in a placement game.
By rule, the players are all under 23 years old. Since the NCAA does not allow its players to compete, they are usually always from Canadian Major Junior leagues or have already turned pro. No players can have NHL experience and a maximum of four players can have up to one year of professional experience each. Additionally, players from European elite leagues don’t usually attend because, as Thompson says, “those seasons start earlier and the competition is so high that a trip to the prospect tournament isn’t warranted.”
If a player’s NHL rights don’t belong to the Wild, they come to the tournament on amateur tryout contracts – commonly known as ATOs. The ATO ensures that the Wild is the exclusive holder of a player’s NHL rights until Oct. 1. This means that with an impressive tournament, prospects can not only be invited to Wild training camp, but can also be signed to a professional contract for the upcoming season.
“A number of players who have come to training camp on tryouts have ended up signing contracts and playing in the NHL.” Thompson continues with a list of players who attended Wild camp, “Pascal Dupuis, who just won a Stanley Cup, Zbynek Michalek and most recently, Maxim Noreau in Houston.”
Minnesota’s original roster for this year’s Traverse City tournament includes nine draft picks and 15 ATOs. (Center Cody Almond
, a 2007 draft pick, was recently scratched from the tournament after sustaining an injury during off-season training.) However, even if Wild draft picks make up a minority of Minnesota’s team in Traverse City, there is still plenty of reason for Wild fans to pay attention to all of the players on the team; many prospects could later sign contracts to play with lower-league affiliates, like the Houston Aeros in the American Hockey League.
All of the prospects in Traverse City undoubtedly dream of playing in the NHL, but the first step is gaining experience in a NHL tournament. Thompson likes that the players have to prove themselves in Michigan before they can make it to camp in Minnesota because it creates high-intensity atmosphere at the tournament.
“The prime objective is to have a good training camp for the Minnesota Wild,” says Thompson. “The way to do that is to force the young guys to compete.”
Plus, he wouldn’t mind having another plaque on his office wall.