When reflecting on the off-season, I’m reminded of the words of Charles Dickens: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
Most of North America has seen glorious summer weather on a daily basis since the NHL Draft concluded June 25. On the other hand, I can’t recall a period of time when the hockey world has been rocked by so many tragic deaths.
In hockey, the renewal of the season takes place in autumn. For most NHL teams, it starts with the best young prospects in the organization participating in a tournament against the best young prospects in other organizations. This year these tournaments took place in Oshawa, Penticton, Florida and, the oldest and biggest of them, in Traverse City, Mich.
Eight teams, divided into two divisions, competed in the five-day tournament. After three games of round-robin play, the teams were placed against their counterparts from the other division in the final-day playoff round (the Rangers fell to the Sabres in the final).
Interest is always high in this tournament held on the longtime site of the Detroit Red Wings training camp. The crowds are enthusiastic as they get to rub shoulders with many of the NHL stars of tomorrow.
The fans have good reason to be optimistic about the future of the stars of this tournament. Last season's Calder Trophy winner, Jeff Skinner, started his Carolina Hurricanes career in Traverse City. A number of the greatest players in the NHL have starred in this tournament. Some of them include Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg of the Detroit Red Wings, Ilya Kovalchuk of the New Jersey Devils, Dany Heatley of the Minnesota Wild, Brent Burns of the San Jose Sharks, Scott Hartnell of the Philadelphia Flyers and David Legwand and Martin Erat of the Nashville Predators.
The success rate of tournament graduates is remarkable. Records show 297 of them have gone on to play in the NHL. Of this total, 146 have played less than 50 NHL games, 41 between 50 and 100 games, 52 between 100 and 250, 46 between 250 and 500 and 12 have already played more than 500.
The tournament is highly competitive. Prospects battle every game for recognition from their respective clubs and, in some cases, for an invitation to the main training camp. Many careers are launched at Traverse City and some of them involve players who have never been drafted. For instance, during my career with the Minnesota Wild, we invited Pascal Dupuis, Zbynek Michalek and Joel Ward to Traverse City on a tryout basis. All three players performed well in the tournament and were then invited to the Wild main camp, where they all earned NHL contracts. Once given the opportunity to play in the league, all three have gone on to earn multi-million-dollar contracts and Dupuis has won a Stanley Cup ring. None of these events would have occurred without the Traverse City Prospects Tournament.
The tournament is very useful for the development of NHL players. For many of them, it’s the first time they will play with their teammates and the first time they will ever suit up an NHL team. For some European prospects, it’s their first time playing a high-level game on a North American ice surface. For the elite-level prospects, who are reasonably assured of invitations to the main training camp, they can get their nerves out of the way in Traverse City and then concentrate on making the team when camp starts. For the American League coaching staffs, which generally run the teams in Traverse City, it’s a first opportunity to work with what will usually become the core of their team.
For all of these reasons, the Traverse City Prospects Tournament and others like it provide a useful springboard to the upcoming NHL season.
While we continue to grieve and honor the memories of those lives tragically lost from the hockey world, let us always remember that hockey, like life, involves ever-changing seasons. Let us look forward at this time to renewing the caliber of hockey which so royally entertained us in last spring's Stanley Cup playoffs.
Tom Thompson worked as head scout for the Minnesota Wild from 1999-2001 and was promoted to assistant GM in 2002, a post he held until 2010. He has also worked as a scout for the Calgary Flames, where he earned a Stanley Cup ring in 1989. He currently works as a scout for the New York Rangers. He will be writing his Insider Column regularly for THN.com throughout this season.