Players putting their best skate forward at camp

Report from Nationwide Arena on the first day of CBJ Developmental Camp.

Columbus, Ohio -- The stands of the Ice Haus were filled almost to capacity by fans hungry for hockey in the middle of summer as the 2013 Columbus Blue Jackets Development Camp got underway. Among the prospects in attendance were the eight players selected by Columbus in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft.

The annual Blue Jackets Development Camp is an invitation-only camp for the organizations prospects. The on-ice portion of the camp is being run by the CBJ affiliate Springfield Falcons head coach, Brad Larsen. Joining Larsen are his assistant coaches in Springfield, Nolan Pratt and Jared Bednar. Rounding out the on-ice staff are Blue Jackets goaltending coach Ian Clark and former CBJ player and current development coach, Chris Clark.

Although the players know that this is a development camp, that didn’t stop them from putting their best skate forward in trying to impress the coaching and front office staff. “This is not about them coming here this week and trying to make the team,” said General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen. “That’s not what this is all about. This is about them showing us where they’re at in their process of becoming a pro.”

Development Camp is about both on and off ice performance. GM Kekalainen expounds, “We help to show them that this is what needs to be done to become an NHL-level pro. We get to know them a little bit better. We get to know what they’re all about, on and off the ice. It’s about us teaching them what it takes. That’s why there are different lectures and different topics here. Hopefully, they learn a lot and have some fun.”

With prospects from the last seven drafts, the experience level of the players ran the gamut from junior-leaguer to having a “cup of coffee” at the NHL-level. This is an important step in each prospects career. They get valuable feedback on strengths and deficiencies. Their competitive level is on display, also. 

“Obviously, some guys will stick-out more than others,” said Kekalainen, “that’s just the name of the game. It’s competitive. It’s always a competitive environment, so everyone here is trying to impress us. That’s the nature of the business and the sport. And, that’s good. But, like I said, nobody should come here with an attitude that I’m going to make the team this week, because that’s not going to happen.”

Kekalainen does like what development camp shows of the prospects. “It’s a good way for us to get to know them better. We’ll go from there to the next step, which will be the Rookie Tournament. And then, the main camp.” 

Kerby Rychel, Columbus’ first first-round pick in this year’s draft, is experiencing his first NHL development camp. While hoping to impress enough here and at training camp, he’s realistic about what he can do as a player. “I’m just going to go out there and play my game,” Rychel said. “I do what I do. I work hard, on and off the ice, and just try to leave a good first impression.”

He goes on, “once camp comes around, I’m going to do whatever I can to make the team. Obviously, I know the NHL is a big step from Junior. Regardless, I’m just going to work as hard as I can.” When asked where he’ll end up if not with Columbus, he said “I’ll go back to Windsor (OHL). We have a pretty good team coming back (this season). And, I think I have a pretty good chance of making the World Junior team this Christmas. That would be pretty exciting for me. “

For a first-round draft pick, there is always pressure of expectations to deal with. “There’s always pressure. I mean, I’ll say that I’m a little bit nervous going into an NHL camp for the first time. I’ve had pressure all of my life with my dad (Warren Rychel, Stanley Cup Champion with the 1996 Colorado Avalanche). But, at the end of the day, you have to put it behind you.”

GM Jarmo Kekalainen wants to see how they deal with pressure. Whether, it’s the pressure of expectations or the pressure of making the team. “I wouldn’t want anybody to come here and not try to make the team,” he says. “I think everybody should come here thinking they can make the team. It’s more realistic for some than for others. But, that dream has to be there. That passion to reach the dream has to be there from the start.”

The Columbus Blue Jackets development camp continues this week, putting all of the prospects through the paces of what it takes to be a player in the NHL. It’s not always easy, but the organization does their best to make it an enjoyable process. The players leave camp knowing what they need to work on to improve, both on and off the ice. 

GM Kekalainen summed it up succinctly, “That should be their goal. That should be their dream. That should be their mentality, to come in here and earn a job. It starts this week. But, like I said, you’re not going to accomplish it this week. But hey, do your best to impress everybody here. Not just with your play on the ice, but with your attitude, your focus, your work ethic, preparation and the respect you show everybody. It’s a great start.”