PLYMOUTH – For the first time in several months, Detroit Red Wings fans had something hockey-related to cheer about. The Wings opened training camp on Sunday at Plymouth’s Compuware Arena, and the nearly two-hour skate was free to the public.
About half of the 3,500 seats at Compuware, normally home of the Ontario Hockey League’s Plymouth Whalers, were filled. The training camp session, one of four slated at the arena, gave the Wings faithful its first opportunity to see forwards Jordin Tootoo and Damien Brunner, defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo and goalie Jonas Gustavsson. Pavel Datsyuk, who is scheduled to return today from Russia, and Darren Helm (injury) did not participate.
The NHL lockout has reduced the regular season to 48 games. Therefore, training camp will last all of three days as the team prepares for its season-opener on January 19 in St. Louis. Normal preseasons span about five weeks, between training camp and the preseason games, which the Red Wings will not have any of.
Count head coach Mike Babcock among those who were thrilled to finally get back on the ice. Sunday was the first day that NHL teams were allowed to hold camps.
“We’re ecstatic to be back, to have the opportunity to play,” Babcock explained. “When you do something you absolutely love and you don’t get to do it, maybe you’ve taken it for granted a little bit. I told the guys this morning I really missed them. I’ve got to tell you, we’ve got great people on this team, being around them all the time is a thrill for me.”
Sunday’s event was broken into two separate 45-minute sessions. Each was run at breakneck pace. Babcock led the squad through several drills, all of which placed clear emphasis on speed and puck movement. Rests were nonexistent.
In the second session, former Edmonton Oilers head coach and current Wings associate coach Tom Renney took more of a leading role. The team worked on its power play and penalty kill. The session ended with conditioning skates and, finally, a salute by the players to the crowd.
As first practices of the year are concerned, Babcock was pleased with what he saw. Though he and his staff have very little time to evaluate players, the goal is to make as much of the truncated camp as possible.
“I thought the pace was real good,” he said. “I thought it was pretty good. Obviously, you start and you’re excited. Then you get worn out a little bit. But, then we play three games in four nights and our third game in four nights is our home opener. It’s life.”
Babcock conceded that it is simply impossible to replicate the evaluation process that would go on during a normal-length camp. However, he did say that the shortened season would likely create even more opportunites for players on the bubble to eventually gain a role with the team.
“Normally in a five-week training camp you get an opportunity to give everybody over eight exhibition games the power play, the penalty kill, everything to really show what they have,” Babcock explained. “That’s not going to happen. So it’s very important as a player, if you don’t like your lot you’ve been given day one, that you choose your attitude right, you work hard and you stay. There’s going to be a ton of injuries (and) you’re going to get an opportunity.”
One of those players just hoping for a chance to crack the roster is forward Mike Knuble. A 17-year veteran who was originally drafted by the Red Wings in 1991, Knuble played 63 regular season games for Detroit in the 1996-97 and 1997-98 seasons, before embarking on a long career with stops in Boston, Philadelphia and most recently in Washington.
Knuble, 40, was invited to the abbreviated camp with, he conceded, a very slim chance of making the roster. However, the eight-time 20-goal scorer with over 1,000 NHL games under his belt is not ready to let his career fizzle out. He figured there would be absolutely no surprises between him and the coaching staff.
“You’re not going to come back in here and knock anybody’s socks off,” Knuble said. “They know what you can do. The odds are against you. You just go out and play. You come out here and you’re thankful for the opportunity. You could be sitting at home.”
Without exhibition games, where fringe players can make strong statements about their ability, Knuble has no choice but to bide his time and wait.
“I’m not going to get to do that, so you’ve got to be very realistic, which I think I am,” Knuble said.
The Red Wings have more sessions open to the public at Compuware. Today’s skate from 12 p.m. to 1:45 p.m. and Tuesday’s 9:30 a.m. practice are open, while the team will hold its annual Red vs. White game on Tuesday at 6 p.m.