GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- These should be days of unbridled enthusiasm for Marian Gaborik, days of great promise and hope.
And though there are reasons for optimism that the talented Slovak winger will return to his star status with the New York Rangers, this training camp has been an exercise in balancing looking ahead with tremendous loss.
Gaborik was struck a double blow in recent months when former teammate Derek Boogaard died after an overdose of prescription drugs and alcohol. Then, on the eve of training camp, Gaborik lost his close personal friend and national team teammate Pavol Demitra in the crash of the Kontinental Hockey League Lokomotiv team jet in Russia.
“This summer’s been very tough. Especially lately,” Gaborik told ESPN.com after workouts at the Rangers’ practice facility Wednesday.
Gaborik traveled to Slovakia and helped to eulogize his longtime friend at Demitra’s funeral. Those in attendance said Gaborik was eloquent speaking on behalf of Demitra’s teammates, who gathered at the service to pay their respects to the veteran NHL and international player.
Gaborik then flew back to North America and jumped headlong into Rangers coach John Tortorella’s demanding training camp.
In some ways, the sprints and drills, the sweat and aching muscles, are a welcome relief to thoughts of what has been lost and memories of good friends taken too soon.
“It’s a good thing to come back and focus on hockey,” he said, “and get my mind off other things.”
If there is one person who is expected to reap the benefits of the Rangers’ offseason acquisition of Brad Richards, it’s Gaborik.
The smooth-skating winger has at times appeared as though he is ready to assume a position as one of the game’s great offensive producers. And then there are seasons like last year’s campaign that saw Gaborik slump to 22 goals down from 42 goals in 2009-10. During his last 24 regular season games, Gaborik had just six goals and he added one lonely goal in the Rangers’ five-game first-round playoff loss to the Washington Capitals.
We recall waiting outside the Rangers’ locker room during that series and Gaborik talking candidly about how he understood that he was expected to do more, how he wanted to be that kind of player, assume that kind of responsibility.
Yet it didn’t happen.
With three more years left on a contract that pays Gaborik $7.5 million annually, both he and the Rangers are looking for a big bounce-back year.
“Definitely I want to put last year behind me,” Gaborik said.
From the get-go, Tortorella has made it clear he believes Richards and Gaborik are a match that should make beautiful hockey music. Not that it’s a marriage that won’t take some adjustments especially on the part of Gaborik who played with a host of different centers last season.
“I’ll put it to you this way, the most important thing for Gabby in playing with Brad Richards and Richards playing with Gabby is that Gabby doesn’t have to have the puck all the time. And I think that’s what happened a lot last year. He had the puck a lot,” Tortorella said Tuesday.
“I think it’s important that he doesn’t have it. He’s going to be a better player without it if it’s going to work with Richie and be going to holes, just always giving and going. I think that’s very important,” the coach said.
In the couple of scrimmages in which the two players have played together this fall, Tortorella said he thinks he can see the thought process working for Gaborik.
“The last scrimmage it was much better,” Tortorella said. “We talked about it a little bit. It was much better the last scrimmage, and Gabby ended up with some really good scoring chances ‘cause he was without the puck. I think that’s going to be a little bit of adjustment for Gabby but I think he’s going to get it.”
Gaborik sees the opportunities with Richards and agrees they have styles that should mesh nicely.
“I’m looking forward to this. He’s one of the best playmakers in the league,” Gaborik said. “He’s looking to get you the puck and you’re going to get it in the right time and in the right spot. He’s a good skater, I’m a good skater,” he said.
Tortorella said he’s got a feeling in his bones that this is going to be a banner year for Gaborik.
“Looks in really good shape. He’s a proud man. Didn’t have a great year last year. I’ve said it from the get-go, I feel it in my stomach this summer, I just feel it all over me. I think he’s going to have a really good year and it’s not because of Brad Richards. I just think he’s going to have a really good year this year,” Tortorella said.
Certainly, if there’s someone who could use some good news it’s Gaborik.
Still, he sounds like a man with a good perspective on his summer of loss and the season that will follow it.
“Now with the tragedy of the crash you realize that you never know when it can be over so you have to appreciate things,” he said.