ST. PAUL, Minn. — All of last week, Mike Yeo had to sit in the stands as a spectator as the Minnesota Wild players took part in unofficial team skates. Because the NHL lockout was not officially over, Minnesota’s second-year coach couldn’t be on the ice with his team until everything was signed, sealed and delivered.
That moment finally came for Yeo on Sunday, the first day of training camp, after the NHL lockout ended Saturday. For the first time in a long time, the 39-year-old Yeo was on the ice, blowing his whistle and barking instructions to his team.
“That was real tough,” Yeo said of his bystander role last week. “I knew that there was a storm a-brewing and things were going to be coming real quickly here. It was just a lot of fun to come to the rink today and start getting ready, just knowing that we finally get to start doing this for real.”
The Wild and the rest of the NHL began their abbreviated training camp Sunday, which is less than a week away from Minnesota’s season opener on Jan. 19 against Colorado. Before that, the Wild will host a scrimmage Wednesday that will also involve the team’s AHL affiliate, the Houston Aeros. Yeo said he intends to make that scrimmage feel as much like a real game as possible.
Once training camp ends, the NHL’s abbreviated 48-game schedule begins. It might sound like a daunting task for a second-year coach, but Yeo seemed unfazed by what lies ahead after his first day of training camp.
“Luckily, we’ve had about eight months to prepare for this. I’m real comfortable with the plan that we have in place,” Yeo said. “I’m very happy so far visually what I’ve seen from our guys in terms of their conditioning and the work they’ve put in. I think we’ve got a really good base and have the opportunity to build off that.”
Sunday was the first time Minnesota’s new players had the chance to skate for Yeo. Forward Zach Parise, one of the Wild’s big offseason signings, spent his entire career with New Jersey before joining Minnesota. After just one day, Parise said he likes the approach of his new head coach.
“A lot of detail, which I like. You have structure. Everyone knows what they’re supposed to do on the ice. That’s what good teams have,” Parise said. “The first day was good. It’s a lot of information right away, learning a different system for me and different things out there. But I think it went really well.”
The Wild had taken part in one-hour unofficial skates all throughout last week. Sunday’s practice lasted two hours, and the team also had meetings beforehand, where new players got their first taste of how to run Yeo’s system.
That included Finnish phenom and top prospect Mikael Granlund, who spent part of the lockout playing for the Aeros. Yeo spent some time in Houston watching Granlund, but now the 20-year-old center has the chance to work directly with his new coach.
“We have pretty much the same system in Houston. I pretty much know what he wants me to do and what he wants the other guys to do,” Granlund said Sunday. “I think he’s a great coach. From what I’ve heard, he cares about his players and does all he can for the team.”
Everything is real now for the Wild. The term “lockout” won’t have to be used again. There are no more items to be voted upon by the players’ union.
Finally, after so many agonizing months, the team can focus on hockey.
“You can kind of get all the other stuff aside and get your head around the fact that we’re finally back. There’s no hiccups that could happen. Everything is completely done,” Wild forward Matt Cullen said. “The lockout is officially, completely over and we’re now back to work and back to playing the game we want to play.”
The bar is set high for this Wild team, which missed the playoffs last year but added plenty of talent this offseason in Parise, Granlund and defenseman Ryan Suter. No one Sunday wanted to talk about the expectations placed upon Minnesota. They know that others outside of the organization expect big things from them.
After just one day of training camp, the Wild feel good about where they’re at, but they know there’s plenty of work to do in a short amount of time.
“I know that there are 30 teams in the league right now that are really happy with what they have, the team that they have, and we’re one of those teams,” Yeo said. “This is where it starts, Day 1 right now. The process for us begins. As an organization, we feel we’re ready to take the next step.