A lot of people compare the first day of camp, and the return of NHL hockey each season, to Christmas Morning.
I disagree - it's better. You certainly have some of the same feelings of anticipation, excitement, and energy, but instead of hoping that someone came down the chimney in the middle of the night, you get to watch the objects of your hope and excitement skate out right in front of you - almost close enough to touch - but still carrying those same feelings of joy and surprise as you start to watch players and prospects alike show what they can do.
This year, training camp has a special bonus for me - it was my first time taking my girlfriend to camp, and her first full hockey season, after she watched a couple of games with me last season, got hooked, and was glued to the tube for the Stanley Cup Playoffs and into the offseason.
That said, she was still a bit...concerned...about anything starting as early in the morning as today's camp.
"I'm going to hate everything until around Noon", she threatened, and accepting this, I made things a little easier by giving her her first ever hockey jersey.
Making our way down to the arena as the dawn broke across the Columbus skyline, caffeine was a major priority, so like many Blue Jackets fans we went in to check out the new Tim Horton's Cafe attached to the Ice Haus, in place of the former Cotter's restaurant.
Let me take a moment to note that, despite obviously being slammed and harried as they dealt with the inevitable issues that arise in the first few days of opening a new restaurant, even one that is part of a chain, I felt the staff were handling themselves well and managing the crowd as well as could be expected. I'm also really impressed with how they're using the space - having eaten in Cotters a few times in the past, despite the fact that I think the Tim Horton's actually seats less patrons, it feels like a much more open and warm space. We also checked out the "FroYo bar", and that is totally going to be worth a return visit when it isn't 8am. Saturdays may be the cheat day for my diet, but I have some shame left.
I also received a pleasant surprise when I held open the door to Tim Horton's for the person coming in behind me, and it turned out to be Ken Hitchcock. Getting in line, he quipped that most of the people probably didn't realize who Tim Horton was, and I was pleased to be able to note that I did, and we had a brief conversation about how he had, indeed, been a hell of a defenseman. Even better, Hitch looked over and gave a "Oh, hey, Derek", and we saw Derek Dorsett grabbing a morning coffee.
Don't be surprised if we see more than a few CBJ players and members of the organization showing up there if you happen to go through the Arena District in the morning. Canadians needing coffee are all too likely to gravitate towards the siren song of Tim Horton's every morning.
Walking from there into the Ice Haus, I was very impressed with the experience, for lack of a better word, right in the front door.
In the last few years, the first day of training camp has been a fairly ad-hoc thing. I can recall walking into the morning of the first on-ice session and aside from the staff at the ice haus having roster sheets on the counter, it could have been any other day. Even last season, where fans were able to walk into Nationwide Arena for the first on-ice session, was a fairly low-key affair once you were inside the door.
Today, however, in addition to the free t-shirt and schedule poster giveaways, the Jackets (and new partners Ohio Health) were offering free photos to celebrate the start of the season, a camera crew was interviewing fans about their hopes for the season, and a mini-Blue Line station was available to help anyone in need of a bit of emergency swag.
I had expected that with over 20 minutes before the start of Group A's session, even with some of the goaltenders coming out to warm up early and take a few drills with new coach Ian Clark, that finding a seat wouldn't be too difficult.
More fool I.
Already nearly at standing room only (aside from the roped off press / team area), the Ice Haus stands were packed to the gills, and fans were already starting to spill over to stand at the boards around the back of the practice facility to get a look at this year's squad. Finally navigating to an open spot, we managed to get our cameras out just before Group A began to skate out to the standing applause of the fans.
For a lot of fans, this was the "sexy" group to watch (and I'm sure one of the reasons so many got up that early on a rather chilly September day). Featuring Rick Nash, Antoine Vermette, Marc Methot, Grant Clitsome, and prospects like Tomas Kubalik, Boone Jenner, John Moore, and Allen York, group A also included three of the team's biggest offseason acquisitions - Jeff Carter, Mark Dekanich, and James Wisniewski.
Once the group had gone through some warm up skates, the tempo was set high, with players starting in stickhandlling drills in the neutral zone, then moving into line attacks on one of the netminders.
One of the units to appear early in drills and remain together through the morning for the White squad was Rick Nash, Jeff Carter, and Tomas Kubalik practicing as a line, where Kubalik not only looked like a decent fit, but had some nice passing plays, with James Wisniewski and John Moore backing them up as a defensive pair.
Though these two "big gun" units never matched up directly, both showed hints of what could be in store this season. Wisniewski showed some of his offensive talents with a couple of booming shots from the point past Paul Dainton and Allen York, but also contributed on one attack by pinching behind a Nash-Carter-Kubalik rush and capitalizing on a rebound.
Speaking of Carter, he had several subtle signs of promise in his smooth but powerful skating and good plays in drills (including a nice moment of communication before a 5 on 5 "clear the zone" drill where he got with both Nash and Kubalik to plan the play) but also a moment of flash when he managed to pop a rebound out of the air with a tennis style swing of his stick and into the net - perhaps to be waived off in game action, but a great moment of "Wow!" for the crowd.
Marc Methot, while a returning player, also showed something new - a bullet of a shot that seemed both somewhat more powerful and more accurate than I can recall from previous seasons. When paired with Savard, Methot was frequently set up to shoot from the point, and while he only scored directly in one drill, he put quite a bit of rubber on net or to create a nice rebound from the boards. It seems he's been working on earning that raise this offseason - I'm looking forward to seeing if this continues in game action.
Matt Calvert also looked to be ready for the challenges of his sophomore season, pulling off several nice goals and using his speed to good advantage through the morning. The biggest thing I noticed was that even in drills, he refuses to give up on the puck - his pursuit was relentless and he worked hard to hustle through defenders and even other players who were waiting for their turn in the drill!
As the drills turned to more "battle" situations, particularly in close quarters drills around the net, with two d-men ordered to clear out a pair of forwards by any means necessary, the physical play turned up as well. Again, Wisniewski made a clear impression in Group A, unafraid to hack, whack, and hit anyone who was foolish enough to set up in "his" crease, including giving Payerl and Jenner some pretty solid "Welcome to the NHL" hits and solidly unhorsing Jared Boll during one sequence.
I was also interested to see John Moore pick up a bit of the same tempo from his partner, getting physical and using his body more often as he battled for position. Not to be outdone, Grant Clitsome also turned up his physical play, hitting at pretty close to what I'd consider "game levels."
In net, Mark Dekanich had a bit of a scare when he took a nasty shot right off the mask, but recovered quickly and was right back into play, though he reported later on twitter that his mask's distinctive red cage is the worse for wear.
Paul Dainton mostly stood out to me because of his awesome Venom inspired mask - he seemed to be decent, but was taken advantage of a few times. Allen York mostly left a feeling of "solid" - nothing too spectacular, but nothing out of place. His style continues to be very economical, with a minimum of movement.
After sprints, drills, and a final stretch, Group A ended their time on the ice with a raised stick salute to the fans in the Arena, and the fans responded with a standing ovation of their own.
Taken by surprise, I wasn't filming for the salute, but we've got a nice package of highlights here:
Once group A began to head into the locker room, I had to ask my girlfriend what she thought. It was, after all, only 10:30. Was the dislike of all existence still in effect?
"That was awesome! Thank you for getting me to go to this!"
With a little time to kill while the ice surface was cleaned up and prepped for Group B, we stretched our legs, grabbed some water to drink, and managed to take advantage of much of the crowd doing the same to move down towards the other end of the ice haus stands for a good look at the "defend twice" side goal. (A visit to the mini Blue Line may also have happened. I cannot confirm or deny reports of buying a plushie Stinger in the third jersey.)
Greeted by equally firm levels of applause despite a portion of the crowd heading out to the rest of their day (I'd guess probably 2/3 returned for the second session), the B group contained a mix of returning vets (Fedor Tyutin, R.J. Umberger, Derek Dorsett, Kris Russell), new faces (Vinny Prospal, Radek Martinek), and quite a few of the players I'd consider most likely to start the season in Springfield, but probable to see time in the NHL this season (Cameron Atkinson, Aaron Johnson, Maksim Mayorov). Interestingly, several members of Group B also came out in dark grey practice jerseys, rather than the normal Blue or White. Per Aaron Portzline this was simply due to the number of players, but I don't think it's a coincidence that quite a few of the players in grey (Michael Chaput, Oliver Gabriel, Trevor Ludwing) were ones I'd suspect will be returned to their junior teams or released to Springfield fairly early on in camp.
With a chance to get a better look at Steve Mason, Curtis Sanford, and Mathieu Corbiel this session, I tried to focus on how they were reacting to shots and moving on the ice - Mase in particular was impressive. This was a practice and nobody is perfect, but he seemed quite sharp through the entire session - not making really dramatic or "highlight reel" save, but alert and aware, and very few pucks made their way past him.
Vinny Prospal showed up early and often, making several nice plays on the day (and scoring a beauty of a rebound goal off the rush in one drill), but the most interesting fact was how he was lined up - not on the wing, as many had assumed he would be used this year, but centering a line with Cam Atkinson on one wing...and Derick Brassard on the other.
This is training camp - and the first day of camp, at that - but that was an interesting departure from expectations, and adds yet another name to the "moving from center to wing" debate.
I am also quite thankful that while both of the Russell brothers were assigned to Group B, Kris and Ryan were placed on different squads (Kris on White, Ryan on Blue). I had a good discussion with Tom from Dark Blue Jacket about Kris Russell, and we both felt this is a big camp for Kris - he needs to really show some consistent performance, and that he's more comfortable in the Arniel systems, or he could find himself pushed hard for his job by guys like Savard, Johnson, Holden, and Moore.
To his credit, Kris came out hard today, and had some good battles, but I think the top d-men from Group B were Fedor Tyutin and Radek Martinek. Toots had a very strong first day, and really fought for the puck - in several drills where he faced prospects like Mike Thomas or Chris D'Alvise, he quickly took control of the puck and turned the tables, forcing them out of the zone.
Martinek, despite having every valid reason to take a day or be a bit disconnected, really showed a strong commitment today, playing hard in every drill I watched him take part in, and showing off a surprisingly nice wrist shot on a couple of occasions. While his durability is a big question mark, I'm encouraged with what we're seeing so far.
A forward to keep an eye on is Nick Drazenovic, brought in as a free agent after spending most of last year with Peoria in the St. Louis system. He reminded me of a larger version of Matt Calvert - perhaps not as gifted with the hands, but a very similar tenacity in how he pursued the puck and drove to the net - and was not only one of the few guys to beat Steve Mason in 1 on 1 drills, he's the only guy I saw do it twice.
The two biggest prospect names in B were Ryan Johansen, who mostly lined up with R.J. Umberger and Derek Dorsett, and Cam Atkinson. Both had some good moves in drills, but neither did anything to really stand out head and shoulders as they did against their peers in the prospect camp - but I think that's actually a good indication. Both are clearly approaching NHL level, but they're a work in progress. It's not surprising that on day 1, they might not stand out every shift. What I found encouraging, though, was the way I noticed each of them talking to their more experienced linemates - particularly Johansen spending a good bit of time with Umberger. I can't think of a better mentor for a young player looking to step into the NHL - not just because of his work ethic on the ice, but because of the way he's been so committed to the franchise and the community, and the quiet but intense drive to create a winning team that you can sense every time you talk to him.
Maksim Mayorov was also a group B member, and sporting a new number - he's changed from the 43 he wore in his callup last season to 8. Lower numbers are (generally) the mark of a player who will be staying with the main club rather than going down to the A. Is this, perhaps, a bit of a mental exercise to help himself play like a full time NHLer? A gesture from the club to recognize his strengthening play over the last few seasons? Hard to say, but I will give him credit - though he had a few slipups on the ice (in one case, literally, where he fell down twice during a drill), I was impressed by his bearing. It's hard to put into words, but Mayorov seemed to have a "hungry" attitude. He's a big bigger, physically, than I remember, but also seemed a bit leaner - I get the feeling he worked hard on his conditioning this offseason, and really wants to make a push for a spot on the club. He's certainly got a shot, but it will be a challenge. I wish him luck.
Looking at the remaining goaltenders, Curtis Sanford was similar to York in some ways - Good, but nothing dramatic. He did have some issues with rebounds, but it also seemed like he had some conversations with Ian Clark during the session. Perhaps they'll find a few answers for him as the camp continues.
Mathieu Corbeil was wearing a plain white mask to go with his Sea Dogs pads, and you can clearly see the talent behind his play, but you also saw several plays where he over committed or got burned in close. (Mayorov, in fact, had two really beautiful top shelf goals from within 5 feet of the net.) I think the coming year in Saint John will be good for him, but I wouldn't be surprised if, when he starts his pro career, he takes a bit more time developing through the minors.
Running through the same drills as Team A, team B eventually came to a close in similar fashion, but since they didn't need to resurface the ice right away, quite a few skaters stuck around to practice some shots, talk to the coaches, and generally "BS" before heading back to the locker room, so I took a moment to stop by the glass behind the net and get a look at things from a bit lower perspective - and got to experience the thrill (?) of hearing the shots that missed the net slamming into the glass and boards just a few inches away from me.
As we walked out, my girlfriend thanked me again for taking her, and we're both looking forward to our first pre-season game on Tuesday. But we were far from the only couple (or larger group) talking over the camp and what we'd seen.
It's the usual pre-season excitement, yes, but I think there's a little more. There's an electricity I have difficulty putting into words - something is different, this year, and I think everyone can recognize it.
At media day, we talked about the "swagger" as players prepared for the season, and the anticipation they felt after all the roster overhauls. It's not swagger from the fans - not yet, anyway - but there's a belief that seems to be catching. We, as a collective group, are seeing the revamped team, and there's a great deal of approval. A lot of buzz has been building, and I think it could truly catch the entire city, if the conditions are right. Today was the first step down that road - showing them what numbers on paper can suggest, but not always embody. That this is a bigger, faster, stronger, deeper team. That the talent we've been hearing about is real. That the players are on board, and motivated.
Now all they need to do is win.
Training camp will continue tomorrow with the Mirasty Cup (AKA the Owner's Tournament) at 11am. All training camp practices and scrimmages are open to the public unless otherwise posted.