I became an Washington Capitals player for a day. Here’s what happened
ARLINGTON, Va. — My best friend practically screamed over text when I explained I was attending the Capitals’ media fantasy camp on Tuesday.
“Wait. . . like, you’re skating with the Caps!?”
I tried to keep my cool, but given my love for the sport, it was hard to maintain that for more than five minutes as I headed to the Capitals’ practice facility.
The unique experience, set up by Washington’s public relations team, gave sports media the chance to live the life of an NHL player. As a 22-year-old kid who grew up as a huge hockey fan and now writes about it for a living, this was something I’d never thought I’d have the chance to do. So, despite my reputation for being uncoordinated — and the fact I hadn’t skated in months — I grabbed my pair of Reebok skates, bought a bus ticket, got on the train and walked to Washington’s practice facility in Arlington.
From there, I was 9 years old again.
I walked into my assigned locker room, where my nameplate sat above a customized jersey and gloves. My inner self geeked out a bit but, for the sake of professionalism, I maintained my composure as best I could, hooked up my action camera and headed to the Capitals’ dressing room to get an in-depth look at what goes on behind the scenes when the arena isn’t full and the media aren’t around.
Here’s how it all went:
The day started with a five-minute introduction from coach Todd Reirden, who discussed the team and changes it had made to the locker room. For player comfort, the Capitals now have cushions in their stalls, as well as a new TV for players to look over the drills they’ll be working on (which also features a delay for players who can’t read English). The seating order had also been rearranged, making space for the new faces on the team.
Then came the video session. Video coach Brett Leonhardt gave an inside perspective on just how important film and technology have become in the league. Before each game, the video staff will watch three of their opponents’ games, scouting certain players, technique and units. Then, they will share that with the players, as well as information and scouting reports on individual players and opposing goaltenders. As for themselves, the Caps get access to iPads, apps and video files that record their on-ice play so that they can analyze different aspects of their game.
But beyond preparation, video is just as vital in real-time. Leonhardt and the video staff have cameras and feeds from all different angles, which allows them to prepare for coach’s challenges — and also know if a play is offside right away, regardless of whether a goal is scored.
“We already know if it’s offsides so we just say, ‘Go ahead, score,'” Leonhardt joked.
Gameday itinerary is also extremely thorough, planned out accordingly for each opponent. At 9 a.m., the day kicks off with a penalty kill and five-on-five scouting video session, followed by an off-ice warm-up. Then the goalies hit the ice at 10 a.m., and the pre-game skate kicks off at 10:15. After that, the players will head home, nap and get ready for the game, then come to the arena around 5 p.m. Twenty minutes later, they’ll go over the power play in another video session, where Reirden will give his pre-game rundown with reminders and fundamentals to remember.
When that was over, we went over an equipment session with equipment manager Brock Myleswho showed off a new piece of equipment called the “catapult.” Essentially, the Capitals will now sport harnesses under their equipment with a monitor inside, which records their fitness and information about their performance. After they skate, they drop the harnesses in a bag, and the monitors go over to the strength and conditioning coaches.
(Note: The strength and conditioning staff would not have been impressed by my monitor if I’d worn one, but I digress).
After that came the most highly anticipated part of the day: We laced them up and hit the ice. There, our respective groups rotated through three different drills: stick-handling, skating and shooting, led by coaches Blaine Forsythe, Reid Cashman, Scott Arniel and gold medalist Haley Skarupa. Capitals Alex Alexeyev and Jonas Siegenthaler helped out at stick-handling and skating, respectively.
From there, my main goal was to not make a fool of myself while also proving that I can play too. Did I do that? I’m not so sure.
We started with a game of “knock-out,” where you stick-handle and try to knock the puck off other people’s sticks. My main target was longtime friend, Japers’ Rink reporter Jason Rogers. Both he and Arniel knocked the puck off my stick multiple times, smiling wide every time they did.
Alexeyev gave us an example of our first dekeing drill, gracefully going through the stick-handling trainers and firing a puck into the empty net waiting on the other side. He came back and smiled, raising his eyebrows as we were asked to follow suit.
Was he kidding? I thought to myself. How did I get here, learning dekeing from a first-round pick?
He had to know I’d make a fool of myself trying to emulate his skill.
“Yeah, I don’t think I’m going to be able to do it exactly like that,” I warned him in advance.
He laughed as I was up to bat, and I’m sure he laughed even harder when I managed to stick-handle through two of six of the obstacles.
Well, who needs a contract anyway?
I tried not to let him down after that, where I did manage to make a couple of tape-to-tape passes. . . before ultimately falling. Luckily, it wasn’t caught on camera — and if it was, someone must have pitied me and deleted the footage.
Then came skating, where we focused on edge work. Cashman explained the players’ philosophy to skating, which included staying above the ice instead of digging in. They didn’t go easy on us, telling us to push our limits, keep our balance and encouraging us to trust that we wouldn’t fall when it came time to balance on one leg.
After that, Forsythe and Alan May showed us how to shoot the puck, focusing on the snapshot and slapper. Normally when I shoot, I use a low flex to allow for more whip, but on Tuesday I was in for a challenge; I was using Alex Ovechkin’s Bauer Total Supreme One (or at least a model of it), a stick taller than me where power likely comes from the curve (which was nearly in the shape of the letter “C”), because the stick has — well, at least for 5-4, not-so-strong me — a very stiff flex (which probably isn’t so for 6-3, 235-pound Ovechkin).
RELATED: Alex Ovechkin showing no signs of slowing down
Still, I somehow managed to score a couple of goals, going five-hole. But to be fair, the puck was bouncing.
Then all that practice culminated with a media game, Team Red vs. Team White. Coached by former Cap Craig Laughlin, I was inspired to impress “Locker” and give it my all, and also make the most of the real NHL on-ice experience.
“Who’s gonna be a leader out there now?” Laughlin laughed from behind the bench.
I was a defenseman for Team White, put out there on the starting line. Usually, I play wing, but Tuesday was all about trying new things, right? Plus, you need to be versatile to make the roster — and I was full-heartedly expecting a professional tryout.
As a defender, it’s a difficult gig. You need to be in constant communication with your partner and make sure you’re covering the open man, while also battling for the puck and going after it in the corner. Then, you have to shift completely when your team is on offense, joining the rush while also making sure you aren’t too far ahead so that you can hustle back in plenty of time.
Additionally, I learned that profusely saying “sorry” — and stopping to do so — is not the smartest idea in hockey. At one point, someone had the puck in tight, I slid and reached my stick out, not only tripping the player in the process but also landing on top of them and accidentally causing them to fall to the ice.
“I’m so sorry!” I started.
“What are you doing? I need you over here!” our goalie and NHL.com’s William Douglas joked.
Luckily we managed to bat the puck out.
At the end of the day, I logged around 8-10 minutes of ice time, finishing with two shots on goal, both coming from the point and one of them almost dribbling in. On defense … I joked that I finished with a plus-minus rating of minus-4, but I’m going to say I was only on the ice for two goals against.
Team White didn’t win, and the score wasn’t pretty (we don’t need to go into specifics on that; I’m not in this for the fame or the glory, so I wasn’t counting).
At the end, we shook hands, took our group picture and chatted a bit. I lingered, skating a couple of laps at my hometown rink with friends I hadn’t seen in a while and dropping the gloves jokingly at one point to boot.
That’s when I reflected on what the day meant.
Hockey isn’t just a sport. It’s something of an art form, one that requires a lot more stamina, energy and skill than what meets the eye. For fans, and even writers, it can be easy to yell “shoot the puck” from the stands or question decisions these guys make on the ice, but during a game-time situation, there is so much that goes into everything and the game is so fast that decisions don’t come easily, especially when one move can go either way, making all the difference for your team or your opponent.
I’ll let everyone know when I sign my official deal with the team. I asked Locker if I was going to make it out of camp.
“Hey, if you give your full effort, maybe you will,” he said.
Source: Read Full Article