HERSHEY, Pa. — The circumstances are almost bizarre. Hundreds of hockey-types hanging around rinks across North America, watching unfamiliar faces tutor prized acquisitions they are unable to talk to, at least legally.
“We haven’t been fined so far and I’m not taking any chances that will change that,” Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee said yesterday, one day after an agreement in principle had been announced between the NHL and its locked out players.
One of the restrictions in place during the 10-month lockout was a prohibition against discussing hockey matters with the media. And, with the restrictions still in place, McPhee remained hesitant to discuss much of anything until ratification.
On the ice at Giant Center were two dozen candidates for the next version of the Capitals, many of them veterans of last year’s disappointing Portland, Maine, team that failed to qualify for the American Hockey League playoffs. The list was incomplete because there was only one European player out of the several who are expected to compete for jobs.
“We’re all pretty excited and looking forward to the year,” said center Brian Sutherby, a first-round draft pick in 2000 who has been hampered by groin problems for two seasons. “It’s kind of cool that [the collective bargaining agreement] got done while we were here but I was fully expecting we were going to play this year.”
Sutherby’s skating yesterday appeared to be much smoother than last year, when he struggled to regain form after sitting out half the previous season. He admitted to not being 100 percent but said he had improved over last season.
Another player the Caps are counting on to fill a large hole on defense was also skating much better than last year. Nolan Yonkman — at 6-foot-6, 245 pounds, one of the biggest defensemen in the NHL — rehabbed much of last season after reconstructive knee surgery.
Both seemed to impress Jason Fitzsimmons, the coach of the South Carolina Sting Rays of the ECHL, who has run practices in place of Caps employees, who are still barred from doing so.
The Caps of 2005-06 will be young and far less costly than the team that skated around MCI Center at the end of the 2003-04 campaign. Yonkman, born in 1981, was the oldest of the players yesterday whose rights are owned by Washington, an indication of how young the team will be.
Washington has just nine players under contract and only one, goalie Olie Kolzig, could be considered an NHL veteran. Some of the players at the Hershey prospect camp will appear in Capitals uniforms this season but most will spend another year in the minors, playing for the Caps’ new AHL team, the Bears.
But some slots are being filled as the Caps and other NHL clubs start bouncing back in anticipation of CBA ratification. Sources said yesterday that Glen Hanlon, who took over for the fired Bruce Cassidy on Dec.10, 2003, had been rehired as coach, although the length of his new deal isn’t known. Also retained was assistant Jay Leach, who spent last season as an assistant in Portland during the lockout.
McPhee did comment on hiring a coach for Hershey. The Caps picked Bruce Boudreau to lead the Bears, replacing Tim Army, who resigned to take the head coaching job at Providence College.
Boudreau coached the Manchester (N.H.) Monarchs to a 51-21-4-4 record last season and has been behind the bench for 237 AHL wins during the last six seasons. He was re-signed at the end of last season by the Los Angeles Kings organization but, for reasons that have not been made clear, was fired later that same day.
Boudreau played for parts of eight seasons with Chicago and Toronto in the NHL and was as a player at various levels for 17 seasons before turning to coaching.