As a hockey fan, are the many things better than that first walk up of the new season up to the arena? Never mind that it’s mid-September and 70-something degrees outside. Never mind that it’s just training camp. Once you walk in those arena doors and hear the pucks hitting the boards and the glass, it could be snowing for all you care. After four months of craptastic Pirates baseball and eight weeks of “Leftwich or Dixon or Leftwich or Dixon or Batch or Leftwich or Dixon,” it’s FINALLY Pens Camp. That means it’s FINALLY hockey season.
Since the Pens made the decision to bring camp practices from Southpointe to Mellon Arena back in 2005, Pens Camp has become a destination for many fans, myself included. Often times, it was a weekend trip downtown or – even better – a reason to call off work for a day and take in some hockey. Sure, it was mostly spent watching teams do skating & passing drills, or perhaps running some plays out of the corners. But the training camp scrimmages were often entertaining and spirited, and it gave many of us a chance not just to watch the names with whom we’d become familiar, but also get our first real look at some of the prospects.
No matter. To paraphrase Jeremy Roenick, “It’s hockey for the first time in three months, man.” Maybe you even get choked up.
This September, Pens Camp moved across the street to the new digs. The Pens saw no need to break with what has become tradition and decided to open up the first few practices at the Consol Energy Center to the public. So I give you some thoughts, dudes, on the first official Pens training camp at Consol Energy Center (for what it’s worth, I was only able to make it to Saturday’s practice):
- First thing you couldn’t help noticing was the crowd. Dear God. I got their later than I wanted to (9:30 AM) and the lower arena lots were filled. I had to park along the back row of the top East lot. At Mellon the training camp crowds tended to number in the range of about 4000-5000 fans, maybe more during Sept. of 2009, given that the team was coming off the Cup win. Saturday morning, there had to be at least 8,000 or 9,000 people there. Maybe it even hit 10,000. Most of the sections in the lower bowl of Consol were filled, and there were plenty of people also watching from the second deck.
- Heard it was even more crowded on Sunday.
- And keep in mind, we’re talkin’ ‘bout practice here. Practice.
- What a difference in the concourses. No more bottlenecks where it felt you were mosh-pitting through the crowd. If you were in a group, you could easily walk two or three people across and not worry about trampling people.
- Kind of a strange vibe among the crowd, almost like a lot of fans were trying to alternate between focusing attention on watching the team and exploring the arena, and no one knew what they wanted to do more. That said, most of the fans found themselves a seat once the scrimmage began.
- Oh, by the way, there were on-the-ice happenings, too.
- Crosby looks bigger. Not sure what difference it’s going to make, but he looks like he’s added a little bit of weight. Same old Sid with the puck, too. I guess 60 goals may be the target this year. Or perhaps, redemption for what happened in the second round last year.
- Fleury got a great reception from the crowd and that was encouraging to see. A 2009-10 season marred with inconsistencies couldn’t have ended on a worse note for him. The only other player for whom a bounce-back season may mean more to the Pens’ fortunes this year is Evgeni Malkin.
- Didn’t get much of a chance to see Paul Martin, but Zybnek Michalek played in the scrimmage and was terrific. When he was on the ice and the puck was in his team’s defensive zone, he always seemed to be around the puck or in the play. It was one practice, but you could definitely see the comparisons to Scuderi in terms of his positional play. Much, much quicker than Scuds was, though. Methinks Fleury is going to like having Michalek playing in front of him this year.
- Some other media types and bloggers have beaten this point to death, but Mark Letestu looked really, really good on Saturday (and he’s kept it up, by most accounts, on Sunday and Monday as well). While last year, he never really looked out of place, he looked Saturday like he belonged in the NHL. His ice awareness at both ends of the rink is solid and by most accounts, the offensive abilities he’s showcased the last couple of years in the AHL are starting to translate to this level. It’s too early to say he’s made the team, but the front office has reportedly liked him for a long time. If he keeps this up, it’s going to be awfully tough for Shero to send him back and even tougher to bury him on the fourth line here.
- Arron Asham was announced as an assist on Letestu’s scrimmage goal and was met with a smattering of boos. Old habits die a little bit hard, I guess.
- Kielbasa grinder. Best. Arena. Sandwich. Ever.
- It may be a bit of a longshot, but I wouldn’t be entirely surprised to see Simon Despres get a nine-game tryout with the NHL club to start the season. Because of his age, he cannot go to the AHL until his junior season ends. At this point, he either must make the NHL club or go back to the QMJHL. The Pens are allowed to give him up to nine games here before they send him back to Saint John.
- Despres is very much like Letang was in his first NHL camp – a junior-age player who doesn’t look overwhelmed at all by the more accomplished talent on the ice with him. The Pens glowed earlier this summer about Despres’ confidence level going through the roof this past season and it was visible in his play. He stuck out on the ice much like Letang during his first camp. Nine games here wouldn’t hurt him, and after that, he could be sent back to the Q, where he should dominate and build his game further on what he did last year.
Pens GM Ray Shero signed a five-year extension on Monday and to say that’s good news is the very definition of an understatement. There may not be a front office type in the entire NHL more perfect for this team and this ownership group than Shero, whose blend of professionalism and candor mesh almost seamlessly with that of Lemieux. Some can look at the job Shero’s done and write it off to the fact that he inherited an organization that already had Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury in place. True as this may be, it’s worth noting a few things, though.
- Only Crosby and Fleury had any NHL experience when Shero took over, and not many expected Malkin to become the immediate force he did. And franchise-caliber talents or not, Crosby, Malkin and Fleury were still kids by NHL standards in 2006.
- He inherited an NHL team that was mostly a disaster, as evidenced by the fact that many of the players he jettisoned from the club after taking over had to go to Europe to continue to play pro hockey.
- Go ask George McPhee how easy it is to build that supporting cast around a core of elite players and mold that cast into a Cup contender, let alone a team capable of winning more than one playoff series in five years. And yes, that’s a slam on the Capitals – one that no Capitals fan can really argue.
- One final comment on Shero. It’s likely going to be another decade or so before the final chapter on Ray Shero’s legacy with the Pittsburgh Penguins is written. But when it is, it’s likely that outside of the owners, he will be remembered as the person most directly responsible for turning the Penguins from a laughingstock franchise in an antiquated arena to one of the league’s first-class, destination organizations for players. The new arena and the rabid fan base that he’s helped cultivate will only cement that further in the years moving forward. Nearly 10,000 people showing up for a training camp practice is a testament to that.