GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- The unmistakable barking of coach John Tortorella and the sharp chirps of his unrelenting whistle were both missing from the ice, but there was otherwise nothing else that separated Thursday’s “informal” session from a regular midseason practice at the Rangers’ facility in Westchester.
All 23 players who are expected to be in training camp when it opens (tentatively) Sunday were on the ice Thursday for an up-tempo, intense double session. Rather than bask in the silver lining of the lockout -- that a shortened training camp means less time for Tortorella’s grueling conditioning tests -- players battled hard in the corners and put themselves through a taxing course of skating drills.
“That’s really part of the identity we’ve been trying to establish the past three years, a team that works hard and is in good shape,” captain Ryan Callahan said. “With a five-day camp, that would’ve been tough.”
With a union vote expected to ratify the tentative agreement reached Sunday between the NHL and NHLPA, players are slated to open camp this Sunday. However, they must first complete physicals and medicals, which realistically only leaves Monday through Friday to conduct a significantly shortened training camp.
After 113 days of enduring a long and bitter lockout, players had waited long enough. So Callahan and alternate captain Brad Richards huddled together, threw around some names and reached out to their teammates to suggest hiring a guest coach -- NYU’s Chris Cosentino -- and getting a jump-start before camp began so the team can hit the ground running when the puck drops Jan. 19.
“Only one week with Torts, we didn’t want to ease into it, and we knew he wouldn’t want to ease into it, either,” Richards said. “We’d rather be practice-ready -- we can’t be game-ready because that’s kind of impossible -- but at least we won't be shocked Sunday.”
With a truncated 48-game season comes unpredictability -- which teams will benefit, and which will falter? -- but Richards and his teammates wanted to control at least one variable.
“It’s the one area that’s going to be unknown -- conditioning,” Richards said.
Conditioning, both mental and physical, has always been a primary component and strength of the Rangers during Tortorella’s tenure as head coach.
The lockout will not change that.
“People from the outside might think it’s a big deal, but for us it’s just the way our team [has] developed an identity,” said young defenseman Ryan McDonagh, whose conditioning was tested on a nightly basis last season when he averaged 24:44 minutes per game.
Oh, and Tortorella wasn’t missing entirely. He was merely watching from a perch above the ice with assistant coach Mike Sullivan and Rangers brass Glen Sather, Jeff Gorton and Jim Schoenfeld.
The pressure to be in midseason form wasn’t a mandate from the top, however; rather, it was an expectation from within.
“It’s for us. We’re going to feel better for it. I think everybody realized that. It’s not punishment or anything like that,” Richards said. “It’s more about self-preservation."