ST. PAUL, Minn. — Before former Minnesota Wild forward Andrew Brunette broke into the NHL in 1995 with the Washington Capitals, his offseason training wasn’t hockey focused.
Instead of the development camps run by NHL teams now — and also many young players having the ability to work with skating and skill-development coaches before ever being drafted — Brunette’s summer consisted of playing baseball.
“Running to first, or first to third, I thought that was my workout when I played,” Brunette recalled last week at the start of Minnesota’s development camp. “We didn’t know. In my time, we thought eating a McChicken at McDonald’s was eating healthy. It was white meat. So, things have changed a lot and they’re way more sophisticated through their training and they’ve all had probably personal coaches, skills coaches and all those things, where my generation baseball and ball hockey was how we trained, for the good and for the bad. But yeah, we’re way more advanced now and you’ve got to stay with the times.”
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Now, teams like the Wild use a week in the summer to educate their prospects, working on everything from skating, passing and shooting to nutrition, cooking, and social media training. Minnesota had 36 players in its organization in town this week for development camp, including all seven of its 2013 draft picks. A team with a rich system of prospects is able to invite players such as 2012 first-rounder Mathew Dumba, who will have a chance to make the Wild roster this season, to players developing in the American Hockey League and some that might not turn pro in 2013.
A week of on-ice instruction and off-ice education has become invaluable to setting a foundation for future growth.
“We get to put them through everything from strength and conditioning, we find out what they need to work on the most, find out they’re issues, we deal with nutrition take them through cooking class, do PR and how to deal with it and social media, all these little things that probably fans don’t always think about,” Minnesota assistant general manager Brent Flahr said. “These guys are young guys. We get the chance; we only get them for seven days, so we throw a lot at them and get a chance to know them personally and they get a chance to know each other. Which is good, so when they come to camp in September, there’s a lot less nerves. They know each other and that really helps.”
It’s not quite an offseason of baseball. As Brunette said, prospects are more focused these days. There are still things to learn, especially from a fitness and nutrition viewpoint. The prospects also go through a cooking class as part of the development camp.
“These guys are figuring that out younger and younger,” Flahr said. “There are some kids that are way more advanced as far as strength and conditioning and nutrition already, yet there are some kids that have gotten this far with the bare minimum, just from their talent alone and those are the kids that are very intriguing because the sky’s the limit as far as how much they can improve. They get here. They see where they stack up and we identify some issues. They identify where they fit in in the system here and it’s good for everybody.”
Brunette, now an advisor with the Wild, and Director of Player Development Brad Bombardir led the on-ice sessions during the week. The team conducted a 3-on-3 tournament and finished with a Saturday scrimmage with a shootout at the end, with an estimated 2,600 fans in attendance on Saturday.
“I think the advice, especially this week, is you’ve got to improve, you’ve got to get better,” Brunette said. “I know as a player that played a long time, there wasn’t an offseason that I thought I couldn’t work on something. It was always skating, usually. I don’t know how much better, but I know I did get better from when I started. But there’s always little things. That’s kind of our goal with Brad and our staff here, is we’re going to look at players, and to maybe answer your question we’re going to look and we’re going to look at them and what they need to improve on and give them tips and try to help them as much as we can. If it’s stick handling, if it’s hands, if it’s skating, strength, whatever it is, if it’s eating habits, handling media, all those kinds of things. If we can help them just a little bit, then we did our job this week.”
Brunette said the camp is teaching and progressing without any pressure or the stress that comes in September in training camp. Brunette said the camp is not about evaluation, at least from his perspective.
“I think in today’s game, more so than ever, development of our young players is probably one of the most important things in the organization,” Brunette said. “We’re trying to expose them to everything. It’s probably a little bit over-consuming for them here this week. But we’re trying to help each and every one of them out and they’re very important for our franchise moving forward here.”
Strange feeling for Brunette: Brunette, who retired in 2012, said it felt strange to be the one coaching and not wearing equipment.
The forward who played six seasons with Minnesota in two different stints with the organization was pleased he could return and be a part of the Wild.
“It was tough retiring and not playing,” Brunette said. “My heart’s been in Minnesota since I played here, I think ’01 I started. I loved the city. I loved being here. So it was kind of a logical fit if they were interested, and they were. So, it’s still a transition, a little bit of a process, but when you get out places like this with these kids and seeing them, it starts turning that page a little bit even though it’s probably just a quarter of the way turned, but it’s making its way.”
Retiring, with 268 goals and 465 assists in 16 NHL seasons, was tough for Brunette and he feels he can still play.
“I don’t know if that ever leaves you,” Brunette said. “I don’t know, not yet anyways. I still feel I can play, for sure. As you get a little bit older, I don’t feel it’s gone from me, but at the same time, life moves on. I made a decision and continue to work through it.”
Bulmer working off-ice: Brett Bulmer, a forward drafted in the second round in 2010, was in Minnesota for the development camp, but didn’t participate in the on-ice practices because of an injury.
Bulmer, 21, spent all last season in the American Hockey League with the Houston Aeros and played through injuries to finish with four goals and three assists in 43 games. Bulmer, who saw time with the Wild in 2011-12 before being returning to his junior team to save his eligibility, is still very much in Minnesota’s plan despite a down season.
“First of all he has to get healthy,” Flahr said. “Most of his year last year was due to injury. We still see him as the same guy. We drafted him to be the same guy. He’s played one year, really only part of one year of professional hockey.”
Flahr knows last season was likely discouraging for Bulmer after appearing in nine games with three assists in 2011-12.
“He’s probably frustrated playing some games as a 19 year old and then coming back then next year thinking alright, I’m going to be here, this is what I want to be,” Flahr said. “With the lockout, you come to camp and you have (Mikael) Granlund and (Jason) Zucker and (Charlie) Coyle and all these guys that all of a sudden jumped ahead of him a little bit. So I think at the beginning of the year, I think he didn’t quite know where he fit, then he had to go through some injuries. But in the end, I think it made him tougher mentally. The year before, everything went right for him and then last year, nothing went right for him. So, he’s in a good mindset now. He came in. I think he was 218 pounds and 6-foot-3, guy that can skate and bring a physical presence every night. He’s going to be a guy that’s going to get looked at in camp. Our coaching staff up here already know him and have coached him before and have a place in their heart for him, that’s for sure.”
Phillips was a camp veteran: Forward Zack Phillips played with Bulmer, Granlund, Zucker and Coyle in Houston last year and is another of the team’s highly regarded prospects. A first-round pick by Minnesota in the 2011 draft after a trade with San Jose, Phillips turned pro last season along with Coyle, both coming from the Saint John Sea Dogs.
He was also one of the most experienced players at the camp for Minnesota, making his third appearance for Minnesota during the development camp. He spent all of last season at Houston, finishing with eight goals and 19 assists in 71 games.
“It’s changed a lot,” Phillips said of how he’s changed with a professional year under his belt. “Obviously next year I’m going to go in with a lot more confidence and knowing what to expect, just like this camp. That makes it easier to stick to your game and it should be an easier year. I’m excited to get it started.”
With his experience, Phillips tried to be a leader for the younger players at the camp and pleased the Wild brass.
“Philly’s pretty much right where we projected him to be at this point,” Flahr said. You watch him here in this camp; his hands, vision and instincts inside the offensive zone can’t be taught. When we drafted him, we knew he had a long ways to go physically, getting stronger, faster, quicker. In doing that, his skating will improve. We knew he would need to spent two to three years in the American league and develop, like a lot of players have to do. Not every player can be (Jonas) Brodin stepping in at 19, or some of these guys. So when we drafted him, we expected it was going to take some time. We invested in this kid. His skill level will hopefully get him there and be a point producer at the NHL level.”
Phillips believes there is opportunity for young players in training camp in September and is hoping to prove he’s ready.
“Every year you come and your goal is to make the team, but this year it seems a little more realistic and it’s definitely what I’m trying to do,” Phillips said. “If you’re looking at the roster, you can kind of put it together that there is some room for players to step up and hopefully I can do that.”