By Matt Gajtka -
TRAVERSE CITY - What’s old has become new again as the Detroit Red Wings conducted their first stage of training camp once more in the northwest corner of the Lower Peninsula.
A late-summer pilgrimage to Traverse City has been a Red Wings tradition since 1997, but last year’s NHL lockout denied cherry country citizens the pleasure of hosting Michigan’s favorite hockey team.
But maybe a year of absence made the arrival of the 2013-14 season even sweeter than usual for the employees, volunteers and fans that filled the Centre I.C.E. Arena for Thursday’s official camp opening.
The benefits of an “up north” getaway aren’t lost on the Red Wings players, coaches and staff. Seems that a chance to train in the opposite corner of the state can be a mental reboot before the hectic 82-game marathon that awaits.
“We love it up here,” said Red Wings general manager Ken Holland. “It’s important to create chemistry early…that helps you get off to a fast start. We have the opportunity to do that here. We have two sheets of ice here so we love the setup, and guys can go golfing, fishing or boating afterwards.”
“It’s such a different atmosphere here,” said Detroit defenseman Brendan Smith, shortly after scrimmaging in front of an appreciative crowd. “It’s just good to be back. We didn’t get a chance to come up here last year, so it’s good to see the volunteers and the fans again.”
For someone like the 24-year-old Smith, who started last season in the AHL with Grand Rapids and finished as a regular contributor during the Red Wings’ Stanley Cup playoff run, the normalcy that comes with camp in Traverse City is appreciated.
“Last year, it was kind of unknown where I’d be playing and when the [NHL] season was going to start,” Smith said. “We get some time to learn our systems and get used to who we’re playing with on the ‘D’ corps. We were playing our game by the time the playoffs started [last year] but this’ll help us get there sooner.
“It’s a good thing for management. Guys are fighting for roster spots, for ice time, power-play time, to play at the end of games. We’re competitors and we want to get on the ice. You always want to get better.”
On the other side of the experience spectrum is 40-year-old winger Daniel Alfredsson. After 17 seasons with the Ottawa Senators, Alfredsson signed a one-year deal with Detroit this summer in hopes of capturing his first Stanley Cup.
Although the Swedish veteran of 1,178 NHL games has several countrymen on the Red Wings to ease his transition, Alfredsson is grateful for the opportunity to bond with new teammates at the start of camp.
“It’s the perfect environment up here,” he said. “As a new guy, this is great for me to get to know the guys. I feel bad for my wife at home with four kids for a few days, but I’m trying to make the most of this time.”
Alfredsson has a quick friend in Stephen Weiss, who also joined the Red Wings via free agency. A 30-year-old center, Weiss skated for the Florida Panthers for 11 seasons before accepting a five-year contract offer from Detroit.
“[Alfredsson] and I have talked a bit about the transition,” Weiss, a product of the Plymouth Whalers, said. “It’s little things here and there that are different. It’s been a long time since I’ve been on a new team, but it’s Day 1 and you just keep trying to get better.
Adjustment won’t be as much of an issue for Dan Cleary. The longtime Detroit forward is back in Red Wings camp after deciding to turn down a contract offer from Philadelphia.
Cleary was quite popular Thursday, as goalie Jimmy Howard and defenseman Niklas Kronwall good-naturedly teased him while assorted media members gathered to pepper him with questions about this decision.
“I followed my heart,” said Cleary, who finalized a one-year deal with Detroit late Wednesday. “I was ready to go to [the Flyers] Tuesday but I needed an extra day. I just couldn’t give them 100 percent.
“There’s nothing like being a Red Wing.”
Justin Abdelkader would probably agree with that statement, as he found himself lined up on right wing next to superstars Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg during the first day of scrimmages and drills.
“Playing with those two guys is fun,” said Abdelkader, a Muskegon native and Michigan State alumnus. “They know how to find each other, so if you can just find your own space, it works well.”
Intrigue surrounding line combinations and defense pairings accompanies every NHL team’s training camp, as does the integration of fresh faces into familiar systems.
Throw in the team’s much-anticipated move to the Eastern Conference, and there is no shortage of storylines as the Red Wings prepare for what they hope will be a 23rd consecutive trip to the playoffs come spring.
“It’s something new,” Abdelkader said of the realignment that has Detroit playing most games in the Eastern Time Zone. “It’ll be a nice change. Travel will be good and we haven’t seen many [East] teams recently.
“It’ll be great for the fans.”
A renewed and refreshed Stanley Cup contender playing at a decent hour most nights? Sure sounds fan-friendly.