by Jas Faulkner, Nashville Correspondent
‘H’ is for hope and hard work and heart. Anyone lucky enough to see an NHL training camp from the ground will encounter a lot of that. This year’s camp in Nashville is especially emotionally charged for everyone involved. Those three ‘H’s” will be what gets every one of the prospects and veterans through the next week and a half. Expectations are high and the demand of continually, relentlessly proving that bone-deep desire to be here is a challenge that is going to seperate the dreamers from the doers. History and the new rubric that has been put forth to define what it means to wear the sweater this year are both playing a role in winnowing down the eligible prospects.
The important question at this point isn’t “Can you?” Of course they can or they wouldn’t be here. Anyone who has watched the scrimmages and drills over the past few days has seen an insane amount of talent on the ice. The questions go a little deeper now: “Do you really want to be here?” “Will you do whatever it takes?” Trotz and crew are asking these questions daily, over and over, and it is becoming evident that the players are internalizing this and their answers are beginning to come through in the ways they interact with each other and how they play.
In a couple of days, there may be cuts, followed by the preseason series and then possibly even more cuts. For a few of the players here, the future is already set and their places on the team are assured. For others, there is the drive to keep playing, keep pushing, keep trying to be at their best both on the ice and off because at this point in the game, personal excellence is everything and the cost of falling short when nothing is certain is dear.
This training camp is not just about getting ready for the upcoming season. It is a proving ground. Players are running a gauntlet of physical tests. Their mettle as people is being measured as they are observed interacting with fans, the press and their brothers in arms. Through all of this, they have to exhibit and convey to Predsnation and the coaching staff a sense of joy at being here. Yeah, no pressure here at the ‘Plex this week. How many people could manage self-possession while having their bodies and souls assessed and keep a smile going as questions are being lobbed at them by people holding microphones and cameras inches from their faces all at the same time? That’s quite a juggling act when you think about it.
Last year I upset a few readers when I mentioned that I didn’t like to use “we” when referring to things pertaining to the Predators. Aside from a stylistic choice, referring to the team in the third person delineates the degree of sacrifice and involvement it takes to have a place in the organization. Please don’t misunderstand, I consider myself a part of Predsnation and am happy and proud to be one of the many people who love and support the team. Here’s the thing: fan devotion is an easy luxury. All it takes is a declaration of personal conviction. You don’t have to prove a thing. No one will ever ask you if you have what it takes to wear a jersey to a game. No one will ever, at any point, tell you that don’t have what it takes, either. This is not true of those who are going through training camp right now.
The Skate of the Union in July led to a revival of optimism in the Predators family that is almost ecstatic in it’s depth and scope. This has to be a relief for the team, who has dealt with the wailing, accusatory shade of Game Five since last spring. Even in the face of two months of so much optimism, it has still managed to occasionally dip a cold, bony finger into more recent proceedings. (Enough of that noise. It’s time for an exorcism!) In the grand scheme of things, Game Five may have served as a wakeup call to everyone involved. It certainly was a pointer to the changes to come.
Now the players themselves are facing the ramifications that this revolution could have for them. By October, some of the young men we are watching now will go back to Windsor and Milwaukee and Cleveland, fueled by the hope that they’ll be back when the time is right. Others will take off their Predators sweaters for the last time, never to wear them again as part of the team. Whatever the case may be, it took being out of the ordinary to get this far and it will take a proof of excellence to stay here.