PENTICTON, B.C. – As NHL training camps open Friday, dozens of young players will walk into locker-rooms for the first time and sit down near Jarome Iginla, Henrik Sedin or Chris Pronger.
But chances are, the rookies won’t speak to the star veterans unless they are spoken to first.
“It’s pretty intimidating, especially when you’re sitting across from the big-name players,” said Oilers defenceman Jordan Bendfeld, who has been to a pair of main camps.
“I definitely don’t walk up to people and start conversations. You just kind of stay behind with the younger guys and hang out with them. Once you get going, maybe you start talking to one of those older guys.”
Many of the players at this week’s Young Stars Tournament in Penticton, B.C., are just entering adulthood and will be trying to fit in with grown men at training camps across the league.
They’re more concerned with winning, or keeping, a paying hockey job than jockeying for the title of alpha male in the locker-room.
There’s a dressing-room hierarchy, however, in the minds of younger players trying to break into the league. They’re shy at first, but want to fit in and be accepted, particularly by the team’s top players.
“When you first get there, you are a little star-struck,” Oilers forward Jordan Eberle said. “You’re playing against guys who have been playing in the NHL and you’ve been watching on TV forever. You want the guys to like you and you don’t want to step out of line as a rookie.”
Many players are coming from the junior leagues where the division between veterans and rookies is more pronounced. It’s often like high school as teenagers form cliques and are quick to put those younger than them in their place. Also, junior clubs have fewer support staff so jobs like loading equipment onto the bus are given to first-year players.
“Junior hockey, in my 17-year-old year, you’re definitely not treated like an older guy,” Flames goaltender Matt Keetley said. “You’re at the front of the bus, you’re eating last, you’re packing the bus.”
Things are different at NHL training camps, but the young players will still walk a fine line. They want to respect the veterans, though too much of that on the ice could cost them a job.
“For the most part, you don’t want to be cocky, but you want to be confident,” Eberle explained. “The dressing room is an environment where you want to feel at ease. Guys coming in as a rookie, you’re a little shy, that’s just how it works.”
Most freshman adopt the strategy of not talking to a player like Iginla until he speaks to them first. But if he does, it goes a long way in helping the player feel he belongs.
“I don’t know if they realize it, but when an older player talks to a younger player, it means a lot,” Flames forward John Armstrong said.
Players who have been to a couple of main camps are more comfortable with their place in the pecking order. Keetley says he could ask Iginla now how his summer was.
“Now I might,” he said. “Probably the first year I wouldn’t do it.”
Bendfeld has never seen a young player ask a veteran teammate for an autograph, but doesn’t believe there are any unwritten rules against it.
“Depends what he’s using it for,” he said. “If he got the autograph to give to his little brother or something like that it would be fine. If he’s going to go frame it for his wall or something like that it might be kind of weird.”
The distinction between those who have played in the league a long time and those who are trying earn a spot on the team is subtle, but it is there.
“For me, there is a dividing line,” Bendfeld said. “I’ve got to work my way to becoming one of them, becoming an NHLer. I’ve wanted to be one of those guys for a long time. Still working my way there and maybe one day I will be.”
Because of their respect for the veteran players in the league, rookies find themselves deferring to them off the ice.
“When you get to the hotel, maybe let the older guys hop in the elevator first,” Negrin said.