Traverse City — Tyler Bertuzzi is the first guy to break each huddle in front of Todd Nelson, as the Griffins coach diagrams the next drill for the young Red Wings prospects on a white board hanging on the Plexiglas at center ice.
It is the fourth development camp for Bertuzzi, 21, whose fine performance helped drive the Wings American Hockey League affiliate in the Calder Cup playoffs last season. In this camp, Bertuzzi leads.
The collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and the players association, which places fairly strict limits on this activity, refers to it as “Fitness Testing/Conditioning Camp.”
But with the cooking and nutrition classes, tutorials on off-ice behavior and dealing with the media, yoga and bonding activities like ping-pong and curling tournaments and a cook-off added to off-ice conditioning sessions, on-ice drills practices and scrimmages, there is plainly a lot more going on here.
The young, elder statesman thinks of it as fundamentally important.
“Yeah, it’s big for life, not just hockey,” said Bertuzzi, Todd’s nephew, who finished his first year as a professional.
“Especially for the younger guys coming in, it’s a big eye-opener. I’ve had the experience, but I still soak it all in because it is very important.
“This is a great camp for the young guys and for me to just learn as much as you can. Whether it’s the cooking, learning what to eat and what not to eat, off-ice, media, they go through slide shows, they go through, like, everything.”
In attendance are the two recent Red Wings first-round picks, right wing Evgeny Svechnikov and defenseman Dennis Cholowski, six other players drafted in 2016, five in 2015, five in 2014, three in 2013, two in 2012, three undrafted prospects, and eight invitees.
Evaluations will occur, especially when general manager Ken Holland and his staff watch the only two scrimmages of camp,at 6 tonight and 11 a.m. Sunday.
But, though it might sound odd, that is not the priority.
The priority is developing professionals.
“This is education week,” Holland said.
“When you’re playing amateur hockey, you’re playing for the fun of the game, the love of the game. When you play pro hockey you’re playing for the love of the game, but you’re also going into an industry where that’s how people make their living.”
Not too long ago, the first camp the young guys attended was training camp, where they lasted about a week with all the big guys.
“It speaks to the specialization of sports,” said Kris Draper, whose first team event after the Jets drafted him in 1989 was training camp.
Peering through the Plexiglas at the attendees participating in a drill, Draper said, “Look how big those guys are, already. We weren’t anything like that.
“Between the draft and training camp, I had my personal trainer.
“I was lucky because I kept that person for many years.
“But that’s all I had from the draft to camp.”
Jiri Fischer, director of player development who runs the current camps, experienced how much changed in the decade after Draper’s start, when Fischer was drafted in the summer of 1998.
“It was pretty much work, work, work; I was never cramping up as much playing hockey as in that camp — ever,” Fischer said of the boot camp he experienced as a 17-year-old the week after he was drafted.
“I think as hockey is getting more and more specialized, the official plans for everybody are more sophisticated.
“All player now are either training in a group, or they have their own strength coaches. Everybody is being pushed in the offseason.
“So we really try to use this camp to take guys to the next level so they understand what their limitations are and what their strengths are.
“And when they leave the camp they have some sort of a plan to tackle their limitations and to improve their strengths as well.
“That is what we believe in: That everybody has to be special to survive in the NHL.”
For the players who are not yet professionals, the sense of beginning a transition is palpable.
The Red Wings' top draft pick, defenseman Dennis Cholowski was taken 20th overall in the first round. He discusses camp so far, a team scrimmage, and his plans for the fall. Tom Gromak
“So far so good,” said Dennis Cholowski, the 18-year-old from Langley, British Columbia, whom the Wings picked in the first round two weeks ago.
“Just coming here and getting to see the rink and meeting all of the players and getting to see Ken Holland and meet all those guys (in management) and just kind of getting acquainted with the whole process and being able to come out here and compete with really good players, it’s really special for me.”
A second round pick, Givani Smith, said he is intent on soaking it all in.
“It’s my first development camp,” said the 18-year-old from Thornhill, Ontario. “I’m taking what they have for me and slowly improving over the summer.
“I’ll probably be back here next year and better than I was before.”
Red Wings management considers the seemingly commonplace events like the ping-pong, curling and cooking competitions essential to player development.
Players who gather with other players amid a sense of camaraderie, whether in the weight room, during on-ice drills and the offseason conditioning routines, or just to encourage each other in the discipline required to eat properly and eschew the cheeseburgers, fries and pizza, are generally more successful
“Some of these guys are going to play for the Red Wings,” Fischer said. “These are the best prospects that we have. In the meantime, they should get to know each other and they should be competitive within the group.”
All of which is not to say there is no work. There is plenty, including four days of repeated drills in on-ice skill development, on-ice conditioning, on-ice practice and off-ice workouts, in addition to the two scrimmages.
Nelson said the camp is based on skill, with instruction, proceeding to drills and then practice.
“The guys who have one year of professional hockey under their belts, they know the drills,” Nelson said. “They’re timing is just a bit better.
“And that’s normal.’
The coach’s message for Thursday was telling some of the young guys to stop “going 110 miles an hour,” trying to impress the brass, and backing off enough to properly execute.
When that standard is met, Nelson said, acceleration is appropriate.
For Holland the scrimmages will provide the moments to judge where the prospects are and what parts of their game are strong and what needs improvement.
“This week and the first week of training camp are about the future,” Holland said. “It’s looking at players that you think might one day be Red Wings.
“It’s about hope for the franchise.”