VAIL " It's a yearly tradition in hockey, though not quite as glamorous as growing a playoff beard or hoisting the Stanley Cup.
Come late summer, regardless of how many days they've spent in the gym, national hockey league players get that lead-like feeling in their legs when they take to the ice.
Florida Panthers forward Steven Weiss got a chance to motor around Dobson Arena in Vail last week while doing a bit of huffing and puffing. Weiss, along with several teammates, a handful of NHL players and a some younger talent, was in town for a week-long mini camp put on by Panthers strength and conditioning coach Andy O'Brien and former Panthers goalie Eddie Belfour. The entire Panthers squad will be in town for a set of practices and training Sept. 13-16 for their regular visit to Vail Valley.
"It's was a tough camp," Weiss said. "But it's good to know you've done something like this before (training) camp. Like Martin Gelinas (of the Nashville Predators) was saying, it's better to feel this way a week or two before camp than during camp. Mentally, it's good to know we've pushed ourselves really hard going into camp. The whole point is, once we start camp and the season, (conditioning) is easy from there."
Before with the late-morning practice sessions at Dobson, the players spent time working out with O'Brien.
"The workouts were a little more intense, but shortened up," said Panthers defenseman Bryan Allen, who had to get his legs under him even before he hit the ice. "I come from Ontario, so the first day here I was walking up the stairs and felt it."
But it wasn't a week of just work. In the afternoons, the players took to the outdoors for some adventure.
"One day we went (on All Terrain Vehicles), the next day we went skeet shooing. Some guys went golfing and fishing and we went for a hike," Allen said.
Weiss enjoyed the skeet shooting, as well as the hike up to Bighorn Cabin in East Vail, which was similar to the first few days on the ice in at least one respect.
"It was really tough," Weiss said. "I had a blast and was glad we did it."
For Allen, who is coming off a knee surgery at the end of last season, it was an easy
choice to come up for the mini camp.
"Everyone goes to their summer towns and has their workouts there. But you come to an environment like this its more intense " the high altitude is helping a lot. "(The camp) is making sure everything is in line for me personally. I'm able to get in touch with Andy (O'Brien) and our athletic trainer, Curtis Bell."
Belfour, one of the top NHL goalies of all time, felt the inaugural mini camp went well, and would like to come back in the future.
"It's awesome. I get a chance to spend some quality time out here, and it's a great place to train," Belfour said Friday at Dobson. "Everything is in close proximity. We stayed at Vail Cascade and the training facility is right across the street and the rink is only five minutes away.
"This is something maybe we'd like to do every year," Belfour added. "Maybe we'll bring a few more guys next year and turn it into a charity event."
Belfour, donning his signature mask with an eagle " he's been long known as Eddie "The Eagle" " looked sharp in net during drills, and was his always-competitive self. At the other end of the ice, a goalie with a similar style moved around the pipes. Dayn Belfour, who plays Junior "A" in Canada, got a chance to work alongside his father at the end of Friday's session in a shootout. As Eddie left the net after stopping a shot, he skated to Dayn for a quick chat.
"We wanted to stop everything so we'd win," Eddie said.
The Belfour's came up on top.
In October, Eddie, the sure-to-be future Hall-of-Famer, will be heading to Sweden, where he'll play for Leksand, a second division team in the Swedish Elite League.
"I'm looking forward to the challenge and opportunity," he said.
It must have been pleasing for Florida management that some of their young stars are taking the initiative to get the season started a little early, even with recently-signed big contracts. Allen, who came over to the Panthers in a trade with Vancouver, inked a five-year, $14.5 million deal earlier this summer. And late Thursday night, Weiss signed a six-year, $19 million deal.
"Anytime you sign, it's off your mind and its just easier to go out and play," said the 24-year-old Weiss. "(Florida) is where I want to be and where I want to win, so I'm happy."
The Panthers headed back to Florida over the weekend. In two weeks, when the whole squad comes up, there will be time for some group-building activities, but not the likes of what the select few enjoyed last week.
"It's too bad our time here during training camp is short," Allen said.
Sports Writer Ian Cropp can be reached at 748-2935 or email@example.com.