NHL’s Panthers visit Vail Valley
EAGLE – Preseason training sometimes brings teams away from their normal confines. Baseball teams head south for warmer weather, but the National Hockey League’s Florida Panthers have come up to the Vail Valley, and not just for the altitude.”(Panthers owner) Alan Cohen has a big interest in the area – he has a home here,” said Panthers general manager Mike Keenan. “He has a professional hockey team and wants to make that team part of this community as well.”Keenan, who brought the St. Louis Blues to Vail when he coached the team, also understands the importance of bringing the players.”It’s really a great environment to train in. If you look around, it’s pretty appealing and a good opportunity for our players to be away from Florida together.”The Panthers arrived in on Sunday, and will be here until Wednesday. From Monday through Wednesday, the Panthers are practicing at the Eagle ice rink, as well as training off-ice and attending team-building seminars in Vail. Before the Panthers hit the ice, however, they hit the links. The players, coaches, and staff got in a round of golf Sunday in Summit County.”The greens were a little tough, but it was a nice day,” said Chris Gratton. “I’d like to come back in the summer to check out some of the courses here.”In the meantime, Gratton, along with the other veteran players, is gearing up for the regular season. Some of the younger players are still vying for roster spots.The Panthers brought 30 players on the trip, and will cut down the roster to around 20 before the end of the preseason.”This is my first time with (the rookies), and it gives me a better chance to know them,” said head coach Jacques Martin, who came to Vail with the Colorado Avalanche in 1996 as an assistant coach. “Also, a lot of these guys are possible call ups during the season.”After the Panther’s practice on Wednesday, they will head home to play the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday, and then defending Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning on Sunday.
Back on the iceFor some of the Panthers, the preseason action is the first NHL caliber competition they have seen in over a year. During the lockout, most Panthers played in European leagues or North American minor leagues, or opted not to play competitive hockey.Gary Roberts, who played for the Toronto Maple Leafs two years ago, fell somewhere in between, playing for a bar league with his friends.”The ice is too big (in Europe), and who wants a 38-year-old on their team?” Roberts said.While Gratton worked on his golf game and healed old injuries, Martin Gelinas took advantage of the lockout to play in Switzerland.”I wasn’t planning to go anywhere, but last September I got a phone call,” Gelinas said. “It was a team (in Switzerland’s) B league, but it gave me a chance to get out there, compete twice a week and gave my family the opportunity to travel around Europe.”The players may not have had any NHL responsibilities, but Keenan used the time to catch up on a responsibility delegated to several front office members – scouting.”I traveled the world to find some players and keep an eye on the business,” Keenan said. “It was something I hadn’t done in the past, but it was interesting to see how the game was played in Europe.”Martin also scouted from Ottawa, where he had been the head coach of the Ottawa Senators for eight years.
One line, two line, red line, blue lineWhen the NHL season starts for the Panthers on Oct. 5, they will have played six preseason games under the new NHL rules. Major rule changes include the elimination of the two line pass, the institution of tag-up off-side, smaller goalie equipment and a shootout.”We’re all trying to get adjusted,” Gratton said. “I’m a fan of some of them, and for some, the jury is still out. No red line allows for skating and for skilled players to show their skills. The shootout I think is more for the fans.”Keenan thinks some of the older players like Roberts and Joe Nieuwendyk may adapt well because they’ve played the game for so long. Nieuwendyk, who wears CCM Tacks, a brand of skates that may outdate 19-year-old rookie Rostislav Olesz, started his career in 1986 with the Calgary Flames alongside Roberts.A rule change that may boost scoring to the levels of the mid 1980s is the zero-tolerance policy on obstruction.”You better have good special teams early in the season,” Roberts said. “That’s going to be the difference between winning and losing.”Another change aimed at increasing goals is modifying the size of the goalie equipment. Leg pads, chest pads, jerseys, gloves and blockers are now smaller than years past. “I’ve had the new equipment for a few weeks now, and I barely notice the difference anymore,” said Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo .Roberts believes that the goalies’ play won’t suffer from the changes, but that there are issues that may arise.”Hopefully the safety of the goaltender is still there,” Roberts said. “Guys can shoot the puck harder nowadays.”
For the fansThe majority of NHL players aren’t too hot on the shootout. One of the teams that may benefit from the shootout is the Panthers, as Luongo is a brick wall on breakaways. Last week against Tampa Bay, he stopped Brad Richards, Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis in an exhibition shootout.”It’s not my favorite thing in the world,” Luongo said of the shootout. “But if it brings some excitement to the game for the fans, why not? Anything to make the people come watch.”In addition to the shootouts, there will likely be more breakaways and odd man rushes with the new rules.GrapesIf there is one person hockey players missed as much as the game itself, it was the beloved Canadian hockey icon Don Cherry, affectionately known as Grapes. Cherry has been in hot water with management at Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for controversial comments on his show, “Coach’s Corner.””It wouldn’t be any fun if he didn’t say (the stuff he does),” Roberts said. “He does a great job and 99 percent of Canadians love him. He’ll do us some good this year and make the people realize it will be a big change to get used to the new rules.”So how long will it be until Cherry is back to his true form?”It’ll probably be his first interview and he’ll be front and center again,” Keenan said. The Panthers will be on the ice again today at 10 a.m., and then Wednesday at 9:15 a.m. The sessions are at the Eagle ice rink and are free and open to the public.
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