Friday, January 25, 2013


Lightning Camp in South West Florida

The Tampa Bay Lightning completed their four day mini camp last Thursday at the Germaine Arena in Estero, just south of Fort Myers, Florida. It was a special event for hockey fans in the area, as the doors were open for the entire camp.

For many years, Scott Young worked as a columnist in Toronto. He wrote for several newspapers, and crafted books on the side. After all was said and done, he was better known as the father of Neil Young. Neil gained world-wide fame as a singer and song writer, one his own, and with the group Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.

Many of us had the opportunity to enjoy Young’s books in the 1950s which were written for a younger audience. We were invited to enter the door of the hallowed hall on Carlton Street, Maple Leaf Gardens. Young walked us along the corridors to the dressing room of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

He invited us to try to become part of the team. In a magical instant, I was a “Boy at the Leaf’s Camp” or a “Boy on Defence” and I would play in a game as “Scrubs on Skates”. Those were magical times, shared by many a youth.

I played alongside “Teeder” Kenndedy, Tod Sloan, Max Bentley, and Sid Smith. I sat beside Harry Watson in the dressing room, reefing at my skate laces. I giggled at “Turk” Broda’s jokes as we headed to the ice to start the practice.

I am certain the same applies to later generations from the books of C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkein, or more recently the Harry Potter books by Mrs. Rowland, and rightly so.           
Back in Florida, once the lights were brightened, and the clean sheet of ice was placed, glistening, by the Zamboni, the Tampa Bay goaltenders were the first to take the ice. It was an important moment for many in attendance, having lingered in the dust for months of lock out negotiations. Mathieu Garon hails from Chandler, Quebec. He played last year for the Lightning. Anders Lindback  is from Gavle, Sweden, and arrived by trade last June.

Both goalies went into their stretching routines as the other players emerged from the dressing room through a phalanx of fans lining the barricades at the entrance to the ice. There was no pushing and shoving, no great lineups. The autograph hounds were there, but not in the same demanding fashion one sees in the northern arenas.

This was the second day of practice for the Bolts, as they had taken the ice the previous day in Tampa. They moved the camp, hook, line, and sinker to Estero for the remainder of the training camp.

Vincent Lecavalier has been the face of the Lightning franchise for many years. He recently played his 1000th game for the team. As was reported in the Fort Myers News-Press, he was impressed with the reception of the fans at the arena. “The fans here, especially the children, was an added motivation at the practice.”

                                          Listening to Drill Structures

Defenceman Eric Brewer added: “I’ve lived in Florida almost two calendar years, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised how good the fans are, how much they are into hockey, and how they just want to watch the game.” He also quipped that it was good to be back, and how normal it felt to be yelled at by the coaches.

Coach Guy Boucher indicated that they had moved the camp to Estero so that the players could bond more quickly. “We wanted to go where there were the least distractions and where it was most possible to have guys interact together. We’ve been down here before and had a good experience. We want players together all week, non-stop. Those who don’t know one another, we want to get laughs, to get things going, get some competition building up. With just five days before our first game, there’s not much time to get a team together.’

                                  Vivtor Hedamn and Vincent Lecavalier

For most of the practices, Boucher and the rest of the brass perched in the rafters of the Germaine Arena, carefully assessing the talent. They were faced with the chore of paring down the roster from the thirty invitees to the eighteen skaters that would take the ice for the first game. Legendary Hall of Fame member Steve Yzerman is the Bolt’s General Manager. He watched all practices intently, then signed for a dozen fans before heading to the dressing room during the breaks.

Julien Brisebois is the assistant GM of the Bolts, and is Yzerman’s right-hand-man. A lawyer by trade, he takes care of personnel matters, contract negotiations, and such. He also serves as the GM for the Syracuse Crunch, an American league affiliate of the Lightning. I spoke with him after the Thursday practice. “This has been a fine experience for the club,” he told me.

Assistant coaches Daniel Lacroix, Martin Raymond, and former Leaf Steve “Stumpy” Thomas took care of most of the on-ice activity during the week. They had specific ideas drawn on the message boards to share with the players. There were several gatherings at centre ice face the players as they gathered to discuss the drills.

Players participated in drills, broke for a rest while the ice was re-surfaced, then played inter squad games of blue on white. Even from the first drop of the puck, there was a hint of intensity. Mind you, I did not witness any bone-crushing hits behind the net. One could afford to keep one’s head down for an instant with the fear of running into an elbow. On the first shift, Lecavalier made it clear that he wanted the puck in the corner, and he banged away with a defenceman for the biscuit. It set a tone for the rest of them.

Radko Gudas hails from the Czech Republic. He was drafted by the Lightning in 2010, and had a fine year in the AHL last year with the Admirals,setting career highs for goals, points, and penalty minutes. He ripped the first goal of the camp into the net, and was duly rewarded with glove taps from his teammates.

A short while later, Steve Stamkos was robbed by Andres Lindback on a breakaway. He slid into the boards, then picked himself up and skated over to Lindback. He tapped the goalie’s trapper with his glove, paying tribute for a fine save. Not to be expected in the regular season!

G.M. Steve Yzerman was simply grateful that the players were back on the ice. “It has been a whirlwind,” he stated on the Bolts television network, referring to the brief training camp. “I’m thrilled that we are back to playing hockey. It’s good to see that everyone showed up healthy and in good shape.” 

Naturally, many eyes were on Steve Stamkos, the young Tampa Bay forward who has taken little time to make his mark on the NHL. In 2009-2010, he scored 51 goals. Last year, he had sixty tallies. Only six other players have managed to put up more than 50 markers in two seasons, before the age of  23: Mike Bossy, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Joe Nieuwendyk, Pavel Bure, and Alex Ovechkin.

Stamkos works well with teammate Martin St. Louis. Stamkos roomed with St. Loius during the 2009 World Hockey Championships. From the News-Press: “We created a lot of chemistry. He’s a true professional, works extremely hard. I try to pick his brain all the time. The more tendencies and experience on the ice, the more plays we make. If we’re not in a place, we should have been there”.

Coach Boucher concurred. He spoke to Stamkos about a particular drill to practice. “With those kinds of guys, the margin to improve is smaller and smaller. But he knows he wants to improve on faceoffs, and improve his strength. He wants to be one of the top two-way players in the game, and he has all the tools to do so,” he told Craig Handel of the local media.

Everblades fans kept a keen eye on Mike Angelidis, from Woodbridge, Ontario, who played in Fort Myers in 2006-2007. Since that time, he has been in the American League with Albany, Syracuse and Norfolk. He knows about the tendency to become complacent in the lower leagues, and he is doing what it takes to make the grade in the NHL. He has improved his skating, and his energy level has improved. He wanted to leave a good impression with the brass in case he did not make the big league roster.

                               Lyle Lloyd, with Gil Lafleur seated behind him

Many of the fans in attendance at the practices hailed from the north, Canadians and Americans alike. Lyle Lloyd hails from Prince Edward County, about a hundred miles east of Toronto. Lyle has refereed more games than Carter has pills, at most levels of hockey. “I am impressed with the guys here. There is a skill level, and a fitness level that you only get in the NHL." He liked the play of Cory Conacher,  Tyler Johnson, and St. Louis. On one occasion, St. Louis flew over the blue line along the boards, and ripped a hard shot at the net. “You can’t teach that,” Lloyd remarked.

Doug and Bev Townsend have also seen more than their share of hockey. They are season ticket holders of the Belleville Bulls, and also follow the exploits of several nephews still playing the game. They told me they once flew to Holland for a weekend to support Tyler Melancon, a nephew, who was playing for Herentals. They were impressed with the size of some of the players at the practice. Both Keith Aulie and victor Hedman are listed at six feet, six inches. Adam Hall and Sami Salo are well over six feet, and take up a lot of space. Even the new goalie Lindback towers above many others at six six.

                                          Doug and Bev Townsend

Gil Lafleur, no relation to Guy, he whispered, is a Sudbury snowbird. He was a Sudbury Wolves supporter, and as such, he had his eye on Benoit Pouliot, a left winger acquired from the Bruins in trade in the off-season. Pouliot was in Sudbury for three seasons before moving on.  “He had a pretty good thing going in Boston last year,” he remarked. He was impressed with the physical condition of the players.”Years ago, many NHLers stayed in shape in the summer by working in the lumber yard,” he added.
Teddy Purcell also left a positive impression. Coming down his off wing, he snapped an unexpected shot high on Lindback. He backed into the slot, took a pass from St. Louis, and ripped it into the net. Semper paratus.

The big boys played the fighting game for the last ten minutes of the practice. They know that the time will come when they will drop the sticks and gloves during the regular season. B. J. Crombeen and Pierre-Cedric Labrie grasped at each other with one hand, holding the hammer back at the ready position. They circled, discussing the merits of position. Keith Aulie and Ryan “Buggsy” Malone did the same, a friendly dance with a teammate, smiling all the while!

                                             Keith Aulie signs for fans,

When the practice ended, the boys of winter headed to the beach for some serious volleyball. Southern hockey has its merits.

James Hurst

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