When the Golden Knights rookies take the ice today at City National Arena, there should be many on-lookers.
Hundreds of fans are expected for the Golden Knights initial training camp, eagerly watching the first major league sports team in Las Vegas history prepare for their debut season.
More important, the players will be watched by coaches.
Coaches from the team’s American Hockey League affiliate Chicago Wolves will run the camp. Head coach Rocky Thompson and assistants Chris Dennis and Bob Nardella will be evaluating every move the players make.
“They are being evaluated because this is the real deal now,” Thompson said. “You’re here to make the Vegas Golden Knights, so you have to show what you have.”
The most important set of eyes on the players this week, though, sits high above the rink peering down on them. General Manager George McPhee will be in his perch, watching the team he built from the ground up.
“The neat thing about this process is it’s still a blank canvas,” McPhee said. “We have a lot of players here and they have to make themselves into a team. There are still opportunities here for people to earn full-time NHL jobs, especially young guys who were suppressed in other places with people ahead of them.”
Without a lineup from last season to use as a starting point, McPhee enters training camp in a much different situation than the other 30 executives around the NHL.
“I personally am really looking forward to this type of training camp where we have to evaluate everyone based on how they perform on the ice, how they carry themselves off the ice, and how they play in the games,” he said. “It’s different from anything else I’ve ever experienced.”
It’s invigorating for the players, who can confidently feel they have the chance to earn a roster spot or top-line minutes if they perform well on the ice.
“We are completely open-minded about what might develop,” McPhee said. “We are hoping for some unknown surprises, but it’s wide open and it should be.”
One of the players who will draw the most attention is first-round selection Nick Suzuki, who will likely be headed back to his junior team for at least another year.
“I’m taking this opportunity as both developing my game during my first rookie camp, and I’m also really looking to show off what I’ve done this summer and how I’ve changed my game to fit the pro level,” Suzuki said. “I definitely want to try to make the team but you never know what is going to happen and I’m still a young guy with a lot of years left in me to try to make the roster.”
There’s no pressure on Suzuki, who just turned 18 and is clearly in the long-term plans for Vegas. For other players, this camp can determine whether they have a future with the team.
“You’re going to see the level of intensity rise because now it’s time to make the team,” Thompson said. “Guys are here making impressions for the first time with the season right around the corner.”
Thursday, the rookies went through medical examinations and everything went well, McPhee said. As for the veterans, who start camp Sept. 14, McPhee said everyone is expected to be healthy enough to start with the exception of James Neal.
Neal broke his hand during the Stanley Cup Playoffs (when he played for Nashville) and is still recovering, but McPhee said he would only miss a couple of weeks.
It’s been 14 months since the NHL awarded Las Vegas an expansion team, but today for fans in the valley, hockey is finally here.
“The first day of camp is like Christmas for a lot of us in hockey,” McPhee said. “It’s another new season and we will see where it goes and what great things happen with our team and the game.”