Training camps, who needs 'em? Certainly not players

Updated: September 15, 2006, 4:28 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

Ah, training camp, both a grueling test and a renewal rite. Wipe the cobwebs off the equipment bag. Ask the guy at the next stall how the wife and children are because you haven't seen him in months. Call anyone you don't recognize, "Kid." And implement the plan:

1. By the first game on the long preseason schedule that looks like a tour for a second-tier band, sweat out all the beer consumed during a summer of painting the barn, fishing and playing golf.

The Hanson Brothers
MCA Universal PicturesBack in the day, The Hanson Brothers might have needed a training camp.

2. Be in shape by the start of the regular season.

Ah, the old days.

Now, if you blink -- whether as a fan or follower -- it's over, and the early camp workouts are all done on the assumption that everyone has reported in shape.

How about Columbus, a fairly typical team? The Blue Jackets reported for physicals Thursday, have camp workouts Friday and Saturday, and play a preseason game at home Sunday against the Predators. And that's the first of six games in eight days before the Jackets have a hard three-day stretch of practices leading into a final preseason game Sept. 29.

In Denver, the Avalanche reported Thursday, and they consider their entire training camp to consist of single workouts Friday, Saturday and Sunday. They hold a Burgundy-White game for charity at the University of Denver on Monday, then open the preseason the next night.

The Canadiens are a little more old school, appropriately enough, labeling "training camp" as the entire period leading up to the regular-season opener. They will be skating at several sites, including Pierrefonds, Verdun, Montreal proper and Mont Tremblant. But it's mainly semantics because some teams consider what happens after the first preseason game to be part of "camp" and others don't.

Bottom line: Marathon camp workouts for veterans, often at "escape" sites that got them away from the home city, before they opened preseason play are things of the past.

It's neither possible under the collective bargaining agreement, both old and new, nor necessary.

Now, teams are holding rookie camps to get looks at their prospects and teach them aspects of their systems, then the veterans join the kids for the regular camps. Enough of the kids stick around to allow teams to put together hybrid lineups for the preseason games, and those not playing in the games that night can go through hard practices in the morning.

There's an asterisk involved there, too, because in most cases veterans have been skating together at team facilities -- ahem, "on their own" -- for several weeks. It looks a lot like a loosely run practice, minus the coaches. They can be on the other ice sheet during rookie camp, for example, and the younger players at least get used to seeing the marquee names before they're on the ice with them during camp.

Walk up and raise the camp issue with coaches and scouts -- anywhere -- and the reaction is likely to be similar. Or, heck, even with writers old enough to recall the glorious days of marathon daily doubles, with so many players in camp that some had to dress in trailers and preseason schedules that were long enough to merit their consideration in The Associated Press' college football poll.

It doesn't necessarily correlate to dedication to the sport and selflessness, but the biggest revolution in the sport the past 30 years is in conditioning. It's not even close, both in the offseason and in late November. Those old-style camps were necessary, even if sometimes a bit of overkill. They're not necessary now because these guys either remain in condition year-round or are at a huge disadvantage.

Avalanche coach Joel Quenneville, who broke in with Toronto as a player, smiled when remembering his first camps. "Two-a-days, putting on your wet underwear in the afternoons, and you had a workout off the ice in between. You probably had at least a week of that before you played exhibition games. It's totally different, and I think back then you went to training camp to get in shape.

"I think we were all in pretty good shape back then, but it's a different level of training ... The guys know now it's a real business and they maximize how they train."

Said Avalanche assistant Jacques Cloutier, a former NHL goaltender: "Now, with the players in shape like they are, it wouldn't be that hard for them."

But it would be unnecessary.

Another Avalanche assistant, Tony Granato, had gone through a stint with the 1988 U.S. Olympic team before his first camp with the Rangers later that year.

"I don't think we had two practices," Granato said. "My first training camp, we went to Trois Rivieres, and it was Guy Lafleur's return to the NHL. He had retired, but he signed with the Rangers. It was a sideshow because it was Guy's return to the league, so the coverage and the following we got for our intrasquad games was amazing."

Granato said the difference in conditioning is monumental, even in the past 18 years, and that he played in a transitional period.

"You have strength and conditioning coaches, you have personal conditioning trainers during the offseason, and it's a 12-month job," he said. "It was just the start of that when I came in. The older guys I came in with, a lot of those guys came into training camp and they opened up their bags for the first time since the end of the last season. I was coming from college and the Olympic team, and I was skating all summer because I was trying to make the team. I approached it different.

"But if you go back to the era I was playing in, a lot of the guys I was playing with would start training about Aug. 1, trying to get ready for camp with running and a little bit of conditioning. Once the season was over, they shut it down for a few months. Now, it's 12 months. There's so much riding on it, you can't come into training camp and get into shape. Or you're injured, behind the 8-ball. Guys take a lot of pride in it, and they have to.

"Every now and then, you see players who try and cut the corners, who spend too much time on the golf course or on the fishing boat, and they get to training camp and you can tell who they are."

Let's put it this way: In the past, if someone ended up throwing up into a garbage can, it was funny. Too much beer! Too many cigarettes! Too much casting! But the punch line to the joke was that the guy could get into what passed for prime condition by the time the games mattered.

That attitude should be on display in the Hall of Fame, though, because it's history.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."

Terry Frei

ESPN.com contributor
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."