Home is a name and a word. Home is stronger than any spell a magician ever spoke, or call that a spirit ever answered to. -Chris Dee
With the NHL lockout finally officially brought to an end with the completion of the new CBA and memorandum of understanding between the league and Player's Association, the Blue Jackets were finally able to welcome fans and players alike to the first day of training camp at noon today.
There has to have been some fears in the organization about how the community would respond. Denied their All-Star experience, losing so much of the season, and still adjusting to the roster turnover, how many would come out to welcome the return of the NHL?
By the time I arrived at the Ohio Health Ice Haus, those fears had clearly been put to rest. 20 minutes before the team was scheduled to take the ice (and more than a half hour before they would actually make their debut), the stands not reserved for the media and hockey operations staff were full, and the standing room crowd had filled in to surround the entire rink. Fans clustered at the glass, near the locker room entrances, and just barely made allowances for the zamboni tunnel.
The message is clear: Welcome back. Welcome home. We've missed you.
Cheers and applause met Jeff Rimmer when he welcomed fans to the start of training camp, and Todd Richards seemed overwhelmed for a moment by relief and surprise as he thanked fans for their support. The applause returned in even greater strength when James Wisniewski, Matt Calvert, and Colton Gillies became the first players to hit the ice.
For his part, Wiz wasted no time saying "Thank You", turning back around to the bench, grabbing several sticks, and offering them to fans in the crowd. (I want to say he tried to give each one to a child attending the practice, but I'm not 100% sure about that.)
There's a certain flow to these kind of practices. Warm up skates, a few drills, another skate, more drills, and perhaps a shootout to end the day.
Today was somewhat different, perhaps owing to the many players who are worked up to mid-season forms. There was a warm up skate, but from there the order of the day was puck possession, drills, and battles. Breaks were infrequent, and often came with coaches either laying out new drills or offering critiques. No sprints were held, nor would there be a shootout. The focus was working with the puck, and controlling possession on both defense and offense.
Players like Wiz, Derek Dorsett, and Nikita Nikitin were taking no prisoners as they leveled hits on their teammates. Vinny Prospal and Nick Foligno both showed tenacity as they worked for the puck, and more than a few players found themselves slammed into the boards or knocked to the ice. (Ryan Johansen, in particular, lost several battles to Wiz in the corners.) Of course, Foligno also proved that going to the ice was no reason to stop battling in one of the afternoon's most memorable moments. Battling with Dorsett and Nikitin for the puck, Foglino was forced down to his side, while DD landed to one side of him as their legs collided. Unbowed, Foligno managed to twist himself onto his back before sneaking the puck away for a shot on net.
For those wondering about lines and pairings, many of the drills had partial or incomplete units on ice, but I can confirm the basic structures reported by Aaron Portzline:
I have to say that when I tried to watch the new guys, they each seemed to be finding their ways to fit in smoothly, and changing up partners here and there didn't seem to bother them. Foligno, as I mentioned, impressed with his work ethic. Dubinsky had some excellent puck handling. Anisimov is a bigger guy than you expect. Boone Jenner looks ready to go. Erixon didn't stand out too much, but he didn't embarrass himself, either.
I'm still trying to decide what I think about Mason vs. Bob. On the one hand, I agree that Mason seems in better shape, but he's ALWAYS looked strong in these kind of practices - that's part of why his regular season disappointments can be so frustrating.
Bob, on the other hand, had some good saves, but this isn't a situation where he was intensely tested, either. It feels like he tends to be a bit more active than Mason. There's a sense of energy and being slightly more mobile around the net. I can see where it would be an advantage in some situations, and I can see where it might get him burned.
Everyone I talked to, fans, team employees, and the rest seemed relieved and excited to finally be getting the season back. Even when players were getting brief opportunities to catch their breath, there were little smiles, a few nudges, a bit of a light in their eyes.
When practice came to an end and the team met at center ice to stretch, the applause rose again from a crowd that had watched them drill and battle for nearly two hours, and the team saluted from the ice before making one last gesture. Players gathered up hats they had signed and began tossing them to the crowd, with a few of the more inventive souls finding ways to get the hats up and under the netting around the glass for fans in standing room only before some of the ticket and promotional staff came around the deliver them properly.
I'm sure a lot of people will judge these gestures as a "start". I think the team realizes that, and knows that the battle isn't going to stop when they hit the ice next Monday - it's going to continue through to next season, and probably a year or two beyond that. But if today was any indication, it's that the club and their fans are both willing to rebuild the relationship that has been so badly strained.
The NHL is back in town, and the Blue Jackets are preparing to take on a season that is laden with challenges, but also filled with opportunities.