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Oilers Summer Camp, Day One: Stu's Crew

This just in: hockey is popular in Edmonton.
This just in: hockey is popular in Edmonton.

Headed down to Clareview Arena for the opening day of development camp. I arrived just around 10 o'clock to find a full parking lot, many cars parked along the road, and pedestrians galore, many of them wearing copper and/or blue. Parked on a side street a couple blocks down and made my way into the complex, only to find the above scene. For whatever reason (better lighting for video, perhaps?) the Oilers chose the smaller of the two arenas. The seats were completely packed, with people standing four or five deep behind the goal, and others crowded into the seating area of the concession which literally afforded a window on the action. The picnic tables were being used as a further standing room area for folks clambering to get a glimpse of Taylor Hall and the rest of Stu MacGregor's finest. I had to shake my head and remind myself that this was a Tuesday morning. In freaking July. For a workout.

I managed to worm my way in to the arena proper, and was welcomed by the sounds of hockey practice: the toot of a whistle, skates digging into the ice, pucks clicking from stick to stick or thudding off the boards. The end zone was packed right out - reminded me of the terraces of Wembley Stadium, truth be told - but I worked my way through the throngs to the far corner of the arena, where I was fortunate to find both David Staples and enough space to stand next to him for the duration.

In front of us twenty-seven young men were being put through their paces. Eighteen forwards equally split between blue and grey sweaters, six defencemen in red, and three goalies in pads. It took us longer than it should to identify the missing player as defenceman Kyle "Humongos" Bigos, whose massive frame surely would have stood out immediately had he been present. Not sure yet what happened to him, although no doubt it will be the lead item on the 6 o'clock news, what with this being a slow newsday in July and all.

This was one of those days where I found myself lost in the flow of the action rather than being sharply focused on any given individual. The players all had unfamiliar numbers, which were on their backs only and not their shoulders or chests. I have not yet learned to identify them by their skating style or how they carry their stick, so I was a step behind a lot of the time and who the heck was that anyway? Nonetheless, I got a few glimpses which I'll get into after the jump.

As a former minor hockey coach I was interested to see how the workouts were run, and who was running them. The first 35 minutes were largely devoted to skating drills, under the direction of Steve Serdachny, the "skating and skills coach" according to the info sheet that Oilers' hostesses were graciously handing out. (I'm impressed that they hadn't run out!) One cool drill involved players being paired off and tethered together. The first one would take off like a bat out of hell, and the second one had to stay within a tether-length of him. Then they'd switch and go the other way. The feature "race" was between Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle, with Eberle besting Hall on both sides of the equation.

Another interesting drill featured a player playing jump-rope with his own stick, where he'd sweep his stick through his own feet and jump over it as many times as he could in one length of the ice. It was quite comical to see Kristians Pelss try to accomplish this by skating on one leg, flamingo-style, and periodically hopping over his own twig. To his credit he didn't trip himself, but either he's a poor skater or he just didn't quite get the "how to" aspect of this one, which I would bet my last dollar he has never been asked to do before.

After a quick resurface, the players participated in a series of drills of gradually increasing complexity: two man rushes, three-man rushes, four-man breakouts and rushes. Rather than free-lancing, players followed a specific regimen each time: the three-man rushes were all centre-to-wing-to-far-wing for the shot; the four-man breakouts all ended with the lone defenceman jumping into the play as the trailer and getting the shot while the forwards converged on the goal mouth. The common denominator seemed to be get the puck to the outside, get the players to the net. Mixed among them were solo drills in which the players had to take a specific path to the net.

Tom Renney was clearly the man in charge during the central part of the morning, but gradually gave way to Mike Sillinger and Kelly Buchberger. If Wayne Fleming was there I didn't see him. (The program listed neither Buchberger nor Fleming, but Bucky was there doing his thing.) I believe Frederic Chabot was hanging out with the netminders, but I have to admit the goalies drew very little of my attention other than the odd grimace at a soft one finding its way through. Mostly I was trying to follow the skaters.

My overall impressions of Taylor Hall were crystallized in one simple line rush where he drove the puck to the net, his skates carving into the ice with such power and fluidity that he reminded me of a young Mark Messier. Hall is a more advanced player than the Moose was at that age, but Mark's raw athletic ability was obvious from Day 1 of his first training camp, and I'd say the exact same thing about Taylor. Thus endeth the comparison.

Magnus Pääjärvi drew some gasps with a nifty dummy play where he skated through the passing lane on a three-man rush only to jump over the puck which continued on its path to the tape of Anton Lander and from there into the top corner of the net, tickling the pipe on the way by. That one drew some applause, especially from the folks at the far end who saw it best, and that was worth the price of admission right there. ;)

Of the others, Jeff Petry impressed with his rangy skating and sharp puck control. A corny oversimplification, I know, but he "just looks like a hockey player". Martin Marincin is a gangly son-of-a-gun, all arms and legs, clumsy looking, but not slow and certainly not lost out there. Up front, Teemu Hartikainen impressed with better speed than I was expecting, looked strong cutting off the boards and to the net, and displayed a plus shot (at least against these would-be stoppers). Toni Rajala dished out a couple nice saucer passes when they fit within the context of a drill. Milan Kytnar drew my attention a few times although I'm not entirely sure why, he seemed of average speed and below-average shot. Lander looked better, half a stride faster perhaps, surer with the puck. (And to semi-answer Psyche10's query from yesterday's comments section, on first impression he looked more than a year away but worth waiting for.)   

Tyler Pitlick, Curtis Hamilton, Ryan Martindale, Jeremie Blain and others - especially the 18-year-olds who have never attended one of these things - did little to catch my eye, so I have resolved to return to Clareview (a little earlier next time) and try to focus more on the individual level. Watch this space in the coming days.

There was no body contact, no puck battle drills, and to the disappointment of pretty much everybody who stuck out the whole hour and three quarters, no scrimmage at the end. The Oilers dropped the ball a little there; I think anybody who showed interest in the team to this extent deserved something resembling  game action, even if it was only the cherry on top. Instead, no scrimmage, not so much as a shootout, and just like that the players were collecting their sticks and skating off. 

Headed back to the car and noticed a knot of people collecting around the team bus, waiting for a glimpse of the young players soon to pass by. Reminded me of the old days. It's nice to see such enthusiasm/optimism about the team's future, which I have to say looks a helluva lot brighter than the dreary present.