- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 13, 2013

Not too many fans gathered to watch Matt Hendricks bark out orders for his Washington Capitals teammates last week during informal workouts, but each day the group on the ice at the team’s practice facility grew.

As soon as the NHL lockout was over, players flocked back to town and began skating to get ready for the upcoming 48-game season. Sunday, though, things got ratcheted up to another level with coach Adam Oates and his staff on the ice for the official start of training camp.

“This is the time to go. This is it. This is everything you’ve prepared for for a long time,” Hendricks said. “Now the coaches are out there; it’s their show to run and they’re putting us through the paces. It’s our job to be in shape and execute, execute, execute because this isn’t a very long training camp.”

The Caps only have five more days of practice until traveling to Tampa Bay to face the Lightning in their season opener Saturday. That, actually, is what players have been preparing for in recent weeks and months.

But the beginning of camp represented the return of hockey, complete with public address announcer Wes Johnson leading fans in Caps chants. The crowd cheered players as they stepped onto the ice, four months after they would have, if not for the lockout.

When the pomp and circumstance faded, it was down to business. The free-flowing skates without coaches were a thing of the past, and players were thankful for that.

“Structure’s good,” defenseman Mike Green said. “We’ve been skating here for the last two months at Kettler. There’s been about five of us and there’s not been much structure. So for us to get back on the ice and have the coaches guide us and get back in the flow of things, that’s exciting.”

Exciting and challenging because this was the first day of just six for Oates to teach players his systems. So Sunday had to be a mix of guys getting in a workout and soaking up knowledge.

“I thought it was a long day. It was a lot of information, I thought they handled it well and we’re going to do as much as we can and try and get it over with early so they can focus later in the week on the game,” Oates said. “We don’t have a perfect formula on it, we’re just trying to do our best at it and it’s tough. It is a lot of information for them. They’re trying to get ready for a season, to play and learn it all.”

Plenty more hours will be spent this week drilling players on where to be on the ice and Oates‘ philosophies and tendencies. For about an hour and a half Sunday, though, guys began the process of buying in to what their third coach in 14 months had to say.

“He knows exactly what he wants, he knows how to teach it, it’s proven to be a good system and he’s easy to understand,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “It seems like a good fit. It will be great to actually be able to test it out and see how it works, but I have a feeling it’s probably going to be pretty good.”

That remains to be seen. Given that 12 players on the ice Sunday didn’t play competitive hockey during the lockout, part of the battle is being in shape.

This was “way more intense” than last week, Hendricks said.

“You can tell your legs are really burning in some of the drills,” he said. “You can tell the coaches are watching you. You can tell the defensive guys are playing you a little tighter than they would be during the informal stuff. We’re all ramping up our game right now so we can be ready for the start of the year.”

That’s an uphill climb across the league, but the Caps are one of just four teams breaking in a new coach during a shortened training camp. Ideally they would have liked to have three weeks to adjust to yet another coach.

But players refuse to see that as a disadvantage.

“We’re excited,” Green said. “We’re like a sponge right now, ready to absorb all the information we can and we’ll go from there.”

Excited doesn’t begin to describe Oates‘ demeanor on Day One. Forced to spend months watching film and dreaming about the job he had but couldn’t yet enjoy, he also watched as his players skated last week without him.

No doubt he was itching to get on the ice.

“A lot, a lot. It’s been tough because you want to,” Oates said. “The build up and how long it’s been, very excited about it.”

His and the Caps’ work has just begun.

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