Hockey stars start arriving for Olympic camp

CALGARY — Canada’s top hockey stars had barely stepped off the plane before they were surrounded by TV cameras and autograph seekers.

Mike Babcock

Mike Babcock

CALGARY — Canada’s top hockey stars had barely stepped off the plane before they were surrounded by TV cameras and autograph seekers.

The somewhat chaotic scene that greeted the players Monday as they arrived for the start of this week’s Olympic orientation camp served as a pretty good reminder of how much focus will be on the team at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver.

Roughly two-thirds of the 46 players invited to the camp landed at Calgary’s airport where fans were nearly tripping over one another trying to collect autographs or snap pictures of the NHL stars.

One group screamed Marc-Andre Fleury’s name repeatedly until the Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender greeted them at a barrier they were crammed up against.

“It’s the middle of August and you see a lot of hockey fans here,” said Fleury, one of five goalies attending the camp. “That tells a lot.”

The scene was a little calmer earlier in the morning when Duncan Keith was the first player to step off a plane. Still, the Chicago Blackhawks defenceman couldn’t help but feel excited when thinking about how far he’d come.

Keith was a spectator when the Olympic camp was held in Kelowna, B.C., four years ago.

“I feel like it’s a huge privilege to be here,” said Keith. “I remember watching the Olympic orientation camp … with some of my buddies. Now to be playing here is pretty cool — playing alongside these guys is a pretty neat feeling.”

It’s the kind of statement that will be heard a lot this week with 20 players under the age of 25 participating in the much-anticipated camp.

There’s a growing feeling that the next generation will be well represented on the 2010 team, especially coming off a seventh-place finish by the veteran-laden 2006 Olympic squad. That possibility brought a little extra enthusiasm to the start of camp.

“It’s a good mix,” said winger Rick Nash. “Last time I played in the Olympics I felt like one of the only young guys. There’s a new wave coming in right now.”

The players all went through medicals after arriving in Calgary and took the ice in two groups for practice at Pengrowth Saddledome on Monday night. They’ve been divided into red and white teams and will also skate separately on Tuesday and Wednesday before wrapping up the camp with a scrimmage Thursday evening.

The on-ice sessions should provide the first glimpse into some of the combinations Mike Babcock’s coaching staff and Steve Yzerman’s management team are considering for the team — although Babcock urged reporters to take them with a grain of salt.

“I wouldn’t write too much about it,” he said. “It’ll probably be different for tomorrow.”

For the record, Sidney Crosby was between Rick Nash and Jarome Iginla on a potential top line that could give goalies a nightmare.

Crosby was among the handful of players who came to Calgary over the weekend. This is the kind of experience he lives for.

“It’s not hard to look around and want to learn from guys — whether it be other players or the coaching staff,” said Crosby. “You look at the group they put together, these are experienced guys and winners. As a player, you’re always trying to find ways to be better.

“You couldn’t be surrounded by a group of better people. I just try to be a sponge here for five days and take what I can back to Pittsburgh.”

The first evening of practice was held at a fairly high tempo, with Babcock hollering out drills and others banging their sticks on the ice. Forward Ryan Getzlaf (sports hernia) and goaltender Cam Ward (sore back) were the only guys to sit out.

Overall, the atmosphere was pretty intense given that the NHL regular season is still more than five weeks away. It came as no surprise to the guys in charge of the camp.

“The competition for jobs and positions in all areas of this team are up for grabs,” said Babcock. “If you thought for one second that I could just tell you whose going to be on the team, I couldn’t do it. Not even close.”

Several of the storylines that will persist until the team is selected in December will be on display here.

The most compelling might be the number of young players pushing hard for a place on the team. Veterans like Ryan Smyth, Chris Pronger and Shane Doan know they can’t take a roster spot for granted.

“It’s not going to come easy — there’s so many great young players coming up taking jobs,” said Smyth. “You’ve got to be on top, you’ve got to be ready and focused from game to game, from shift to shift. You have to work for everything.”