HALIFAX – When a season ends in disappointment, NHL players don’t want to find themselves anywhere near an arena. Often, they don’t even want to stay in town.
Ryan Getzlaf escaped to Kelowna, B.C., where he found some refuge among family and friends after his Anaheim Ducks fell well short of repeating as Stanley Cup champions.
Dany Heatley lasted just a few days in Ottawa after the Senators were swept out of the first round before travelling home to Calgary.
The vacations are over now. Both players joined Team Canada in recent days and admit that they still have some work to do before they’re back in top game shape.
“When you’ve been skating every day for the last six or seven months you get used to being in the swing of it,” said Getzlaf. “When you take those days off, there’s always going to be a few rusty bumps here and there.
“It takes time to get back into it. We’ve got a couple days of practice here to get together.”
In Tuesday’s exhibition action, Slovenia beat Norway 6-4 and Switzerland dumped Denmark 5-1.
After travelling to Halifax on Tuesday, the Canadian team held an optional skate at the Metro Centre for players who still need to put in that extra work.
The entire squad can look forward to spirited practice sessions on Wednesday and Thursday before Canada opens the IIHF World Hockey Championship with a game against Slovenia on Friday afternoon.
Coach Ken Hitchcock is paying particular attention to the guys who were still in “holiday mode” during an exhibition loss to Russia on Monday. That includes recent arrivals like Heatley and Getzlaf.
“Players that have gone deep in the first series or have had disappointing ends to their season, our job is to get those guys engaged right now,” said Hitchcock. “That’s the process that we’re just in the start of right now.”
One group of players he’s not concerned with are his goalies.
Pascal Leclaire and Cam Ward each missed the NHL playoffs altogether and had time to prepare for the recent five-day training camp in Quebec City, which included two exhibition games.
Ward will be in net for the tournament opener on Friday while Leclaire will start the second game against Latvia.
“The goaltending’s been excellent,” said Hitchcock. “It’s been really good in practice and really, really good in the games. Both guys have played great and that’s why we’re going to give both guys a go here.”
There is more work to be done outside the crease.
It promises to be a significantly different spring for players like Getzlaf, Chris Kunitz, Heatley and Jason Spezza, who all played in the Stanley Cup last year and are now with the Canadian team. They’ve gone from foes to friends in less than a year.
“We’re all in the same boat right now,” said Spezza.
It’s one of the things Heatley enjoys most about the world championship.
He’s playing in this event for the fifth time and has never had a problem putting aside old grudges with new teammates.
“Guys have been in this situation a lot, especially with Team Canada,” said Heatley. “You’re always playing with guys you’ve played against over the years.
“I actually enjoy it, you get to know those guys off the ice and you really appreciate guys more once you get the chance to play with them.”
Like every member of the Ottawa Senators, he had his eyes on another long playoff run and never had any plans to be part of this event.
The season fell to pieces in a hurry and Heatley found himself back home in Calgary when he decided to join the Canadian team.
“I just relaxed for the first few days,” he said. “It was pretty disappointing for us.
“When you get the call to come here it’s a chance to keep playing this year and try and win a gold medal.”
It shouldn’t take him long to get back into the kind of form that has seen him score 50 goals in an NHL season and be a dominant player at the world championship.
“You lose it pretty quick but you can get it back pretty quick,” said Heatley. “The hands are a little bit rusty and it will take a couple days to get it back. That’s normal.”
They are an important few days for everyone in the Canadian camp.
This event spans a little over two weeks and the team will have to play nine games if it is to win a gold medal for the second year in a row. Hitchcock plans to put his players through some team-building exercises to get them ready.
“We’re going to try and keep it fun,” said Hitchcock. “The players have to bring themselves together to compete for each other. Our job is to bring them together technically.
“The bond that they create is through all the things that we do camaraderie-wise.”