On the opening day of the Blues’ training camp Sunday, the coaching staff had plans to keep the players on the ice longer for each of their two scheduled sessions.
Ken Hitchcock could see, however, that after 40 minutes “the legs kind of seized. As soon as they got tired, pucks were exploding off of sticks.”
As they often say in hockey circles, “No worries.” Sunday wasn’t about what kind of shape the Blues were in, or how well they were controlling the puck.
In another development that didn’t go as planned — at least according to the backlash that followed the lockout the last few months — an estimated 5,500 fans filed into Scottrade Center to watch the team’s first practice.
“Andy McDonald was saying it was definitely the most people he’s seen at training camp in his career,” defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said.
From the moment that goaltender Brian Elliott led the Blues onto the ice at 10:42 a.m. until the players gathered at center ice and raised their sticks in appreciation of the fans, Sunday was about having hockey back.
“You never know how they’re going to react coming out of this, but we were pretty sure our fans were going to be there for us, and they showed today how supportive they are,” forward Jamie Langenbrunner. “We didn’t assume anything like that. We hope to reward them this year with some good hockey, and that’s our focus. We’re going to go out and put a good product on the ice every night and come out and work hard. Hopefully come June, we’ll be celebrating something.”
After an ugly four-month lockout, the Blues took the ice Sunday looking to build off last year’s 109-point regular season and trip to the second round of the playoffs.
Twenty-two of the 25 players finished the season on the roster last May.
“We just went back to familiar drills,” Hitchcock said. “Everybody just went back to where they had to go and we just went from there.”
Well, not everybody.
One of the newcomers to the Blues’ bunch is Russian forward Vladimir Tarasenko, who is learning on the fly.
“I liked (practice), but it was a little bit difficult for me because we did different drills,” Tarasenko said. “It’s my second ice (practice) with the guys. I like it.”
There’s been much hype about Tarasenko, but there is also intrigue around a player such as Chris Stewart, who lost upwards of 20 pounds as he attempts to bounce back from a 30-point season in 2011-12.
“I can’t wait for the opener,” Stewart said. “I know the player I can be in this league.”
But apparently Stewart isn’t the only one who put in extra time during the offseason and the lockout so he could be ready.
Asked what impressed him the most Sunday, Hitchcock replied, “The conditioning level of the two older guys up front, Scott Nichol (38) and Langenbrunner (37). Somebody must have given them new legs for Christmas. I’m not sure, but they looked quick and they looked lean. Both guys are coaching their little kids’ teams, so they’ve been running around trying to catch up to kids. Both guys looked like they’re ready to help us right away.”
Despite the dip in effectiveness in Sunday’s practice, Hitchcock wasn’t discouraged, even though the Blues’ season opener Saturday against Detroit is just five days away.
“We’re hopeful by the end of the week that we’re going to get a solid hour out of everybody,” Hitchcock said.
Beginning with today’s practice at Scottrade Center, the Blues must get down to business. But the first order of business Sunday was welcoming fans back to the rink.
“I think everybody was kind of curious how many people would show up,” Blues center Patrik Berglund said. “When we stepped on the ice, it was great to see that many people out there ... cheering for us. It’s really exciting to be back.
The feeling was mutual.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve practiced in front of such a big crowd, so it’s hard to hear yourself,” Hitchcock said. “I just thought the crowd was unbelievable – the fans, the noise in the building, I thought that was the best part.”
Fans “showed today how supportive they are. We didn’t assume anything like that. We hope to reward them this year with some good hockey.” Blues forward