Jim Souhan: You gotta get going early to play in the NHL

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 11, 2007 - 8:21 PM

You think a Minnesota summer is short? That's nothing compared to the offseason of a hockey player.

Before the Vikings played a game that counted, and even before the Twins dropped out of the race, Wild players started holding informal practices that would have made Herb Brooks proud.

For the past week, about 25 players have pushed themselves through voluntary sprints, and Mark Parrish has practiced getting knocked down in front of the net.

The only season shorter than a Minnesota summer is the summer vacation of Minnesota's pro hockey players. The Wild begins formal training camp on Friday, but they've already sweated enough that the spartan locker room at Parade Ice Garden is starting to smell like an industrial-sized bag of Fritos.

You could laud the players for their dedication, or take this as a sign of team ambition, and you wouldn't be wrong. A simpler explanation for skating sprints in early September, before the official start of a grueling, bruising, eight-month season, is this: Hockey players love hockey, and understand the Darwinian nature of the modern game.

Gump Worsley was a wonderful character, with his pot belly and eternal-flame cigarettes. There aren't many Gump Worsleys left in pro hockey.

"Even 10 years ago, guys would start skating the beginning part of September," said Wild center Wes Walz, one of the organizers of the practices. "If camp started on Sept. 15, guys would start skating on the first or second. Now guys are skating in the early part of August, so you might as well say that training camp started three weeks ago for everybody."

Hockey might be fun, but skating sprints before practice when the nearest coach is on the 18th green?

"The way the game has evolved, with the younger players and their fitness level, they get on the ice earlier and earlier every year," Walz said. "In order to keep up, the older guys have to get on the ice with them, or even beat them to the rink.

"The fitness level of the average hockey player, the professionalism and the accountability of being a professional over the last 10 years has really evolved in hockey."

It seems strange to apply the concept of evolution to people without teeth, but Walz proves his own hypothesis. He's an exceptional skater and fitness freak who has survived since his NHL debut in 1989 even though he scores about as often as a sports blogger.

Hockey has got to be the only sport where players ride an exercise bike after the game if they didn't play much, sport's most penitent ritual.

"I'm telling you, the pace of play is so fast now, the level of play has gone up so fast, if you find yourself having a game where you only play eight or nine minutes, that's almost like a night off," Walz said. "So a guy's got to do extra work to keep their conditioning up. That's why you'll find guys on the bike after games, so you get in your 25 minutes of cardio. So at least it's not like you had a day off."

No. Never that.

"You want to be able to keep up with guys at practice the next day," Walz said. "Guys are flying these days, let me tell ya."

Parrish, the Minnesota native, spent the summer at home.

"I think for most of us, it comes to be August, and the summer gets to feel a little long," he said. "Unless you make a pretty good run and go deep in the playoffs, most of us are itching to get back at it."

Across the room, Walz was slinging his equipment bag over his shoulder, heading for his car, as Parrish laughed about his unimaginative summer: rest, work out, drink a few beers, start skating.

"Hey, it's the only thing we know," Parrish said. "We're hockey players."

  • WILD KEY DATES Thursday: Wild players report for physicals. Friday: First practice. Tuesday: Exhibition opener, vs. Detroit, 7 p.m., Xcel Energy Center. Oct. 4: Season opener, vs. Chicago, 7:30 p.m., Xcel Energy Center.
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