SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Phoenix Coyotes goalie Mike Smith lowered into a crouch as the odd-man rush developed in front of him.
The puck went to the left wing and he followed, lodging his skate against the post. A one-touch pass sent the puck across the front of Smith’s crease and he slid over in a flash, whipping his right leg out for a sprawling pad save, setting off a collective ‘Oh!’ from fans lining the glass behind him.
NHL players on the ice, competing hard, fans cheering them on—it almost felt like a real game.
Of course, it was only a scrimmage in front of a couple hundred people at the Coyotes’ practice facility, but as the NHL lockout drags on, fans—and the players—will take anything they can get.
“This is awesome,” said Jane Pittet of Scottsdale, who left work to catch Thursday’s workout at the Ice Den. “I wish it were the real thing, but this is fun to watch.”
The Phoenix Coyotes have been holding informal workouts at their practice rink since the NHL lockout started and this week were joined by more than a dozen players from around the league for what amounts to a lockout minicamp.
Pittsburgh star Sidney Crosby, San Jose forward Patrick Marleau, Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller and Dallas forward Brendan Morrow are among the players who have made the desert the hockey destination this week by skating with the Coyotes.
Players from teams across the country have gotten together for workouts in their home cities, but this week is a chance to face a step up in competition and play against someone other than their teammates, not to mention feel at least a little pressure playing with people watching.
“It was fun to be out there and, OK, I’ve actually go to stop this puck,” Miller said. “I kind of tried to pretend I was back in front of the home crowd and had to make a stop, so it was good.”
The Coyotes have had good turnout for their player-organized workouts, skating with a dozen or so players who haven’t gone to play overseas or for minor league teams, while a handful of players from other teams have occasionally joined in.
Crosby, trying to work his way back from a series of concussions, helped organize a couple of gatherings in Dallas and Vail, Colo., and the group headed to Arizona this week to join the Coyotes.
Phoenix captain Shane Doan sent word that there would be a mini camp of sorts this week, luring more players to Scottsdale.
About 30 players have participated in the workouts this week, separating onto two rinks for drills before coming together for 40 minutes to an hour of scrimmaging. There isn’t any hard checking or an overwhelming intensity to the workouts, but it is a chance for the players to get out and play at close to game speed.
“We’ve had a pretty good group here the whole time and we added about 15 guys, so that made it to where you can play a full game,” Doan said. “That makes it so it’s 5-on-5 and there’s a little bit of a break, not every other shift. Gives you a chance to really play. It just picks up the competitiveness and everyone wants to prove that they’re capable of playing and it’s a lot of fun.”
For now, camps like this and informal workouts with teammates are all the players have.
The NHL lockout reached 75 days on Thursday and had already led to the cancellation of more than 400 games, including the New Year’s Day Winter Classic and All-Star weekend.
Federal mediators joined the talks between the NHL and players this week, but the sides appear to still be far apart.
“I thought I knew what to expect, but here we are, it’s almost December and we’re talking in Phoenix,” said Miller, who lives in Los Angeles and has been working out with Kings and Ducks players.
“It’s very frustrating that we can’t have a true partnership in the sense that the game was doing well. If it needed a tweak or two, we were more than willing to listen, but it seems everyone’s on guard and no one trusts the other party. It’s been going like that for years. It’s tough.”
Camps like the one this week will help them vent some of the frustration, but it’s just not the same as playing in games that matter.