Hockey season isn't on the way. It's here. All the proof you need will be found at the various NHL rookie camps that start in the next day or so and the prospect tournaments that follow shortly after.
Last year's lockout canceled those events, but 20 NHL teams will send squads to face off in game action, much of it beginning on Thursday. At one of those tourneys, a three-day, four-team get-together hosted by the Florida Panthers at their Coral Gables practice facility, two of the top four picks from last June's NHL Draft will make their professional competitive debuts in their new colors: Tampa Bay's Jonathan Drouin (3) and Nashville's Seth Jones (4).
"How cool is that?" said Panthers assistant GM Michael Santos, who -- along with the fans who go to the games that start Friday -- will be very interested to watch this talented duo go head to head.
Santos set up the Coral Springs tournament four years ago as a geographic alternative to some of the other big rookie tournaments that are played in northern locations.
"Teams were flying to the bigger ones in Traverse City (Michigan) and Penticton (British Columbia) and it was expensive," Santos said. "We're able to do this for significantly less than it was costing teams to travel to the other places with their players, the equipment and the staff. They were in more remote locations; they were difficult to get to."
Since the tournament was launched, fans have frequently filled the Coral Springs rink to its standing room limit, especially for Panthers rookie games. This year, the addition of the Bruins, a club with a high national profile, could juice the crowds even more. Still, the Traverse City tourney remains the most popular with teams and fans. It's the oldest and largest of the rookie competitions, having begun in 1998 and being held each year since with the exception of last season. Because of its large number of teams, Traverse City has become a mecca for NHL scouts who want to evaluate the young talent, perhaps get a read on a player who might not make an NHL organization and be available down the line. Over 100 scouts are expected to watch this week's action.
Traverse City's organizers like to point to the fact that this is the place where some big name players got their first taste of the NHL, among them Pavel Datsyuk, Dany Heatley, Ilya Kovalchuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Jeff Skinner, Evander Kane, Kari Lehtonen, Alex Pietrangelo, Jimmy Howard, David Backus and Marc Staal. Twenty-seven guys who debuted in this tournament have gone on to play over 500 NHL games.
They call Traverse City "Hockey Town North" at this time of year. First, the NHL Prospects Tournament, hosted by the Red Wings, gets going on Thursday with hopefuls from Detroit and seven other NHL clubs -- the Sabres, Hurricanes, Blue Jackets, Stars, Wild, Rangers and Blues -- facing off during a four day span. They play round robin in two groups -- the Gordie Howe Division and Ted Lindsay Division -- and then a championship round that starts on September 9.
Right after the tourney, the Red Wings open their full training camp in that northern Michigan resort town. So many Wings fans descend on it, and the twin hockey happenings are so popular, that the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau annually has a page about the tourney and the camp on its website.
Up in Penticton, the Young Stars Classic, hosted by the Canucks, starts on Thursday. The round-robin tournament will also feature prospects from the Flames, Oilers, Sharks and Jets. Like the scene in Traverse City, the young NHLers bring a good deal of energy to the community and this year the locals have created something of a hockey festival to surround the Classic. On tap: a Canucks alumni game against other Young Stars teams' alums as well as local police and fire department members, a Canucks Business Leaders' Day, a Minor Hockey Day, and a Canucks alumni and team personnel meet and greet.
Various Ontario towns have been hosting a tournament for quite a few years and its latest landing spot is in London at the home rink of the OHL Knights where the Blackhawks, Senators, Penguins and Maple Leafs rookies and invitees will skate against each other for three days, starting on September 5.
Additionally, the Kings' and Ducks' rookie teams will square off in a pair of games, one on Saturday at Anaheim's Honda Center (which the Ducks are calling the SoCal Hockey Futures Game) and on Monday at the Kings' El Sugundo practice rink. Those games sandwich the Kings HockeyFest '13 event at the Staples Center on Sunday. And young hopefuls from the Flyers and Capitals will play at the Kettler IcePlex practice facility in Arlington, Virginia on September 9.
Baseball fans get all gooey during the winter when they rhapsodize about the day pitchers and catchers report for spring training. For hockey fans, however, these first signs that the NHL season is imminent are often overlooked. "It's really the beginning of training camp, even though the veterans haven't reported," said Santos. He believes the remote locations of the tournaments have made it hard for media to cover them, although a number of teams have provided fans with webcasts of the action in recent years.
Rookie contests have often been long, drawn out, brawling affairs, with the kids trying to get the attention of coaches and management through multiple fights that only made the games longer. At the Panthers tourney, a player is ejected after a second fight, and Santos says it has become "almost unusual" to see fists flying in these games.
"That's not what we're looking for," he said. "We're about development, not rushing guys. So here's a chance to see 18- and 19-year-olds in game conditions.
"I don't think these tournaments are going to be overlooked much longer."