My first NHL training camp: Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings edition

An NHL player’s first pro training camp is much like that first day of high school (minus the whole getting paid millions of dollars and international stardom). Everyone is bigger than you. They know what they’re doing. All you want to do is fit in, and avoid drawing up any unnecessary, unflattering attention that could haunt you for the rest of your life.

I went to Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks camp last week to talk to a few of the guys about their very first camp experiences. A common theme was nerves, but there are other nuggets of info I do hope you enjoy.

Let’s go to Kings camp first!

Alec Martinez: drafted by Los Angeles in 2007, 4th round, 95th overall. His first training camp was in 2008 after leaving Miami University for the NHL. He was sent to the Manchester Monarchs (AHL) following camp. Martinez’s most recent accomplishment is scoring the double-overtime goal to win the Stanley Cup for the Kings.

“I was actually thinking about that the other day … at dinner … how many training camps have I gone to? I think this is my seventh one.”

(Interrupts) Seventh? What are you like 12-years old?

[Laughs] “We’re being serious now!” [Grins, swipes hand in front of face, turns to serious look]

“When you’re a first-timer, you don’t really know what to expect … you’re a college kid, and then all the sudden you sign, and you’re on the ice with all these guys … you grew up watching. I always made the joke that Justin Williams was on my fantasy team when I was in college. Then like two years later I was over at his house having dinner. Life doesn’t work that way! [Laughs]

“You’re a little nervous. But then on the other side of it, it’s an awesome opportunity to show what you can do, and you know, validate the reason why you’re there and why they drafted you … It’s a pretty exciting time of year, too … it’s a pretty cool experience.

“As a guy that’s been through it before you try to talk to [rookies] a little bit … as a younger guy if you have an older guy just talk to you, even it’s small, especially if you’re stretching before practice, or warming up in the gym. If you just kind of joke around with the guy, it goes a long way just to kind of settle your nerves and settle down. You know, you start maybe not gripping the stick as tight, and you have a little bit more fun.”

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Justin Williams: drafted by Philadelphia in 2000, 1st round, 28th overall. Following the draft, he attended Flyers camp and made the team. 

“I was excited. I was nervous. I was star-struck. Any player that played in the NHL star-struck me when I was 18, absolutely. Never really feel totally comfortable. Everybody’s gunning for your job. So, yeah, it took a few years.”

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Mike Richards: drafted by Philadelphia in 2003, 1st round, 24th overall. (I asked him my question before the other reporters could irk him by asking about his being bumped down to fourth-line center.)

“I was nervous. I remember walking in the room, seeing Keith Primeau and Eric Desjardins; there was a lot of guys there, Alex Zhamnov. There were a lot of good players on the Flyer team my first training camp when I was 18, so I was nervous. It was definitely pretty cool I guess to see all those guys in the dressing room, and getting to be on the ice with them.

“[Training camp is] a big thing … This is kind of the reason you play, to get an opportunity. I remember being drafted. I remember, like I said, walking in and seeing all those players, guys that you watched on TV and getting to be on the ice with them. [Trying to make] a pass, and you’re nervous you’re going to screw it up somehow.

“You see it on the ice a little bit; the first day, I think, everyone’s got the jitters, and are not passing very well. But I think it just goes with the territory of being here.”

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Anze Kopitar: drafted by Los Angeles in 2005, 1st round, 11th overall. Kopi spent a year overseas before attending camp in 2006, and as they say, the rest is history.

“I was definitely star-struck. You know, at that time there was a lot of older guys around here.

“[Jeremy Roenick] was playing here so that was something that I remembered really well. I remember I was on his team, too. One thing we did before a scrimmage, he’d take us to the gym, for warmups, and then he’d crank the tunes up really loud and just start dancing. That’s the way he’d warm up, and we’d jump on the bikes, you know, the younger guys, and just warm up that way … he was very helpful to me.

“He just told me to soak it all in as much as I can, and learn as much as I can … he’s been a great player in this league for a long time, so he was the go-to guy for me to look up [to] at that particular moment.

“I remember my second year, I don’t think I said ‘hi’ to Rob Blake until I made the team. I was that scared; you know star-struck. I think he was enjoying it, too. He didn’t want to say ‘hi’ first either.” [Laughs]

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Let’s get quackin’ with the Anaheim Ducks …

Kyle Palmieri: drafted by Anaheim in 2009, 1st round, 26th overall. Palmieri spent time at Notre Dame before going pro. He went back and forth between the Ducks and their AHL affiliate after attending camp.

“My very first training camp, I have a vivid memory actually of coming in the first day … You get to see all the guys you watch on TV and be around them … first day, first practice, I was on a line with [Corey] Perry and [Ryan] Getzlaf. I walked in and couldn’t believe it. And I played that way. I went out there as nervous as I’ve ever been and I wasn’t even playing in a game … there were no words to describe it. It was something else. I definitely put a lot of pressure on myself for that first practice.

“It was a short time I was here for my first camp. It was a great learning experience and a lot of fun … It went well. I have some good memories and some bad.

“Some of the kids now, I’m looking up to them. (Note: Palmieri is listed at 5’10”. I’m 5’8″ and we were eye-to-eye.) There are some big boys, and they’re excited to get their first training camp.  I think the guys in here have been great letting those kids be a part of the team, and obviously there’s not enough room in the locker room, but everyone feels welcome. It makes the transition a little easier for them.”

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Clayton Stoner: drafted by Minnesota in 2004, 3rd round, 79th overall. Stoner first appeared at Wild camp in 2005.

“My very first training camp was so nerve wracking. You’re around all the NHL players and you don’t really know what to expect. I was talking with the guys the other day, I feel bad because [the younger players have] a lot of nerves and a lot of butterflies. I’m sure when we were watching them the other day before we went on the ice, it’s not the best time. You try and make them feel a little more comfortable.

“Yeah, I [was in awe] mainly in the locker room. When you step foot in an NHL dressing room it’s a lot nicer. And you’re kinda just star struck, I guess you could say.

“I remember guys that were good to me like Andrew Burnett, he coaches in Minnesota a little bit now, and guys that make you feel good, make you feel comfortable. Those are the guys that you remember the most.

“Yeah, a little bit [nervous for camp with a new team]. I mean anytime you’re meeting new teammates it’s a little bit nerve wracking. But now that I’m a little bit older, I’ve been around, and I know some of the guys already.”

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Andrew Cogliano: drafted by Edmonton in 2005, 1st round, 25th overall. Cogs spent two seasons at Michigan before joining the Oilers. He made the roster out of camp.

“Your first training camp you’re always looking around and things are just new. They’re fun. They’re exciting. You spend a long time preparing for that moment, and when you come to it, it’s a little bit different. You look around the room and you see guys you’re playing with and it’s exciting.

“It was fun … you’re quiet. You don’t say much. You lay in the weeds a bit. And you try and play as well as you can. I had a great training camp. I think that’s why I made the team out of the first chance I got there. I had to really strong camp.

“When you start scoring goals in the NHL, even in the pre-season, things feel good. You start feeling good about yourself. You start believing that you could play there. So it was, one the best kind of moments in your life, as a hockey player, is getting that first chance to play with guys you’ve been watching.

“You know what, not overly, I don’t think. It’s just the pro experience, and seeing guys that you see playing in the playoffs. The year I was in Edmonton, I think, the two years before that, they went to the Stanley Cup Finals and that was something that was fresh in my mind … you watch those games at home with friends and it’s exciting to be in the same room as them just two years after. So, I think, that’s the most, the best experience is being around guys that you just watched play in the playoffs and go a long ways.

“Yeah, and you see they’re quiet. They just wanna do their own thing, and keep their head down. And they’re soaking it in, and they should. It’s exciting for guys to come in and play, and have a chance to play against guys, especially on our team, with our top-end players. You learn from those guys, and you watch them. I think that’s the best time to gain learning experience is through your first camp.”

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Cam Fowler: drafted by Anaheim in 2010, 1st round, 12th overall. Fowler went straight to Ducks camp after being drafted. The then-18-year-old made the roster.

“It was a little overwhelming. I had just been drafted. Coming into my first camp, there’s a lot of nerves; just trying to get used to the systems, the guys, and everything. I remember being a little nervous, a little hesitant, but once I got the few skates underneath me, I started to get more comfortable. You know, it’s just hockey when it comes down to it.

“You know, [being star-struck] never really came into play. Once I got on the ice I started to get comfortable. I started to just realize I’d been doing this my whole life. You know, I obviously looked up to a bunch of those guys, but I didn’t feel like I was out of place. I felt like I earned the right to be here. I just wanted to work hard and try and impress the coaching staff, and make an impression.

“I haven’t had a chance to [be a mentor], really. I think those guys have had a little different schedule with the rookie camp and everything. But I remember what it’s like to be them. Those guys, especially Shea [Theodore], and some of these other guys coming up have a lot of potential, a lot of skill; I’m sure they probably don’t need too much help from me. Like I said, I remember what it felt like being in their shoes  So, anything I can do to help them I’m definitely going to try and do.”

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Matt Beleskey: drafted by Anaheim in 2006, 4th round, 112th overall. He was sent back to his WHL team following his first camp appearance.

“I think I was feeling Chris Pronger’s stick most of the time. He was always a guy who let you know don’t go in his corner, don’t take the puck from him. But I was excited.

“My first training camp … we had a rookie tournament in LA, and then came back here and I ended up a couple exhibition games. I started in Vancouver for my first exhibition game. That was a pretty cool moment, standing right there, in Vancouver. They were packed. So those were pretty fun times.

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Ryan Kesler: drafted by Vancouver in 2003, 1st round, 23rd overall. He spent some time in the AHL before joining the Canucks in November of the the same year.

“Obviously nervous, excited. You go out there and everybody’s bigger, faster, and you’re just trying to keep up. It was an exciting time for me. All the veterans were good to me, and took me in. I had a really good time.

“You get over [the nerves] quickly … there’s guys like Joe Sakic you look up to, you want to try extra hard against them. But yeah, obviously there’s going to be guys out there that you’ve idolized as you were growing up. You’ll never forget playing against them.

“No, I was confident, ready to go [for camp with a new team]. I’ve been here for three weeks so I knew most of the guys. It’s nothing like the first one. I’ve been through, I think, this is my 12th one now. So it’s just another day.”

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Nick Ritchie: drafted by Anaheim in 2014, 1st round, 10th overall. This is Ritchie’s first camp. As of this moment, he remains with the team.

“Yeah it’s been good. Having the rookie camp last week and coming into the first day of the real training camp’s pretty cool. Had a good skate today; hoping for a lot more good days.

“You grow up watching some of these guys. It was pretty cool to be sitting near them and playing with them. Obviously, you don’t want to think of them too high when you’re on the ice, you just want to play your game. At the same time you still realize they’re established in this league and it’s pretty cool.

“Some of the other guys have filled me in on a few things, helped me out a little bit. That’s kinda what you expect as the young guy. Something that’s good to have.”

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Patrick Maroon: drafted by Philadelphia in 2007, 6th round, 161st overall. He attended Flyers training camp the same year and was promptly returned to his CHL team. There were reports of Maroon’s poor behavior with the Flyers that later led to his trade to Anaheim.

“I was young. I was 18. I got drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers. Going into main camp, obviously, it was my first year so I didn’t know how to react to it. I didn’t come in in that good of shape. So, you know, for me, it was a learning curve. It was exciting to get out there with a bunch of guys. I was really nervous; very nervous to be out there. As you go through it, through the systems, and keep playing and keep playing, you get confident enough you know how to react to training camps.

“Yeah, I mean, you get star-struck. My first training camp I got to skate with Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. So I mean that was pretty neat.”

(Interrupts) And now you get to beat them up!

[Courtesy laugh.] “For me, I think it was just going out there and just being around. And sit in front of guys who won Stanley Cups and are great players in the national hockey league. And that’s just a dream come true for me.”

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Ben Lovejoy: Undrafted.

“I think you go into training camp for the first time with a lot of doubt in your mind. You think you’re good at hockey, but you have no idea. This is completely different animal; you’re playing men for the first time.

“I remember showing up to Pittsburgh to the rookie tournament in Kitchner. There were four games and I remember being healthy scratched for the first one. It was definitely a rotation, but the first game I was healthy scratched, and thinking to myself, ‘Man, this pro-hockey thing might not work out.’

“[My ego] absolutely took a hit. So I didn’t play the first game, and then played the next three, and played very well. I was invited to the main camp as a guy with an AHL contract; just tried to play as well as I could.

“Got into one pre-season game in Montreal. It was the most intimidating thing I think I’ve ever done. I refused to look up into the stands because I was so intimidated.

“Coming out of college I wasn’t a huge NHL fan. So, I didn’t know a lot of players. I didn’t know who was good and who wasn’t. I just thought …

(interrupts) THAT’S AWESOME!

“I just thought everybody was really good. It was a lot of fun.”