Friday, September 24, 2010

Countdown to the new season: Training Camp

Well, hockey fans, the new season is upon us. Pre-season games have started, and the first official regular season games are less than two weeks away.

I've been on vacation. Last week I was in Florida, and among the various fun things I did on holiday, I got to watch the Florida Panthers vs Nashville Predators rookie game. The Predators shut out the Panthers 5-0. The game was held at the Panthers' practice arena, IcePlex, which is a really nice facility in Sunrise, FL - pro shop, two rinks, bar and grill. After 28 years of my own hockey fandom, I was glad to finally get my mother to join me for a hockey game, too. You're never too young or too old to become a hockey fan! The Panthers fans were very welcoming, and we had a good time at the game.

I returned from Florida just in time for the start of the Chicago Blackhawks training camp, which kicked off on Saturday, September 18th with the Training Camp Festival, which included rollerblading and running races, a bags tourney, live music, and of course, hockey.

And of course, what's me attending something hockey related without a camera in hand? Pictures from TCF:

This pair caught my eye on the drive in, a couple blocks from the UC. I'm assuming this is a father and son, but it might be a pair of brothers. The older one obviously has been a fan long enough to remember Roenick's years with the Blackhawks; the younger, a fan of the newest generation.

I was taking a picture of the crowds watching one of the races kick off; they were waiting for the doors to open at 8am. It was only later once I got home and looked at my pictures that I realized the gentleman in red behind the doors on the right was the legendary Blackhawks center, Stan Mikita, waiting for things to start.

Of course, the Stanley Cup made an appearance. By now, I've seen it at least half a dozen times - I've touched it and kissed it, and photographed it plenty. But this moment gave me chills - the first time seeing it on United Center ice, the UC full of fans, the ice lit like it would before a game.

Looking up, I gazed to the rafters, where three Stanley Cup banners hang. Room has not yet been made for the banner which will be raised on opening night - October 9th.

I'll be in the building for a few pre-season games, but I couldn't get tickets for opening night game, so the next regular season game I go to will be in late October, and I'll see the new banner then.

Of course, what's a game at the UC without Jim Cornelison singing the National Anthem? Despite the fact that the building was only perhaps half full that early in the morning, the crowd still did its best to be deafening.

One can only imagine what was going through the heads of the newest players to the team - those who arrived here by trade or free agency or who had been called up for training camp. Players from all over the NHL have said how exciting a building the United Center is to play in as a visitor, but it's different to be waiting in the locker room, waiting to go up the ramp, and hear the swell of the hometown crowd's voices rise in excitement. And to have to do it as the first official scrimmage practices of the season for your new club? Let's hope it got the new players pumped up for the season ahead.

As the players battle it out for the limited roster spots available, a number of prospects have been making an impact - among them, Brandon Pirri, Nick Leddy, Jeremy Morin, and others. Check out this pass from Jeremy Morin to Brandon Pirri, which resulted in a goal scored on Alec Richards:

After bidding goodbye to fan favorite goalie Antti Niemi after his arbitration award was higher than the Blackhawks were willing and/or able to pay, there is probably no player facing more fan anticipation - and potential criticism - than team newcomer Marty Turco, who signed a salary-cap-friendly $1.3M/1 year deal.

Turco has spent his entire career with the Dallas Stars. He's been an All-Star three times and dubbed "the smartest goalie in the NHL". His style of play is unlike anything Chicago fans have seen in years, but should complement the Blackhawks's strong defensive corps. His debut before the UC crowd was short and he gave up a couple goals, but the fans got a look at what to expect: a goalie who is extremely active at playing the puck.

I'll admit seeing his style makes me a little nervous - any time the goalie is skating behind the net always feels edgy - but we'll see how he progresses.

But Turco took a 75% pay cut to come to Chicago, and has spoken earnestly about his desire to win, to help the team to win another Stanley Cup, and to be a part of the Blackhawks family. Turco's lifelong idol is Blackhawks Hall of Famer Tony Esposito, whose #35 hangs from the UC rafters. Turco has worn #35 for his hockey career, but since that is retired in Chicago, he'll be playing with #30 this season.

Turco is also already proving himself incredibly fan-friendly. He's already participated in some pre-season fundraisers, made the rounds in plenty of interviews, and never hesitates to stop and sign autographs for fans when requested.

It was also the fans' first on-ice look at Viktor Stalberg, the Swedish sensation who came to Chicago as part of the Versteeg trade. Stalberg is expected to be on the opening night roster, and he's known for his smart, skilled play. Local analysts predict that fans will be asking "Versteeg who?" by mid-season.

The UC crowd also got their first look at players like prospect Brandon Pirri, and ex-Oilers Ryan Potulny and Fernando Pisani.

Did you think that Jonathan Toews would let all that hardware and accolades go to his head - or his work ethic? Crazy talk! The Captain came back to the ice looking in top form, and giving 110%.

Last year, Toews stated in his 'One Goal' commercial that his goal was to "lead by example", and it's clear that he's put last season behind him, and is ready to face the challenges of a reformed team and a new season ahead.

Marian Hossa has stated in interviews this week that he's glad he won't have to answer any more questions about not winning a Cup. He's starting off the season with a full training camp and in good health; expectations are high for his performance this season.

Niklas Hjalmarsson - who was almost poached away by the San Jose Sharks before Chicago matched the offer sheet - showed more of the form that made him an important part of the Blackhawks D-lines, blocking shots and willingly throwing himself to the ice if necessary.

After the day's events, when Hjalmarsson stopped to sign autographs for fans, one fan said, "We're glad to have you re-signed here in Chicago."

His face lit up, he smiled, and said, "Yeah, me too."

* * *

The regular season opens for the Blackhawks on Thursday, October 7th with an away game at the Colorado Avalance; the home opener is Saturday, October 9th against the Detroit Red Wings.

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