To begin the first training camp of the Mike Babcock and Lou Lamoriello era, the Maple Leafs left Toronto on a jet plane to fly to Nova Scotia.
Neither the team’s new coach nor its new general manager claimed responsibility for the idea. But they heartily endorsed it as a bonding trip.
“It’s an opportunity to get all the players together,” Lamoriello said. “It’s a short period of time, which is even better because they’re going to get to know each other.”
The Leafs practise Friday, Saturday and Sunday in the Halifax suburb of Bedford before returning to Ontario for split-squad, two-city pre-season action Monday against the Ottawa Senators. By that time, the group will likely be cut from 69 to a more manageable number for the rest of camp.
On the ice, the Leafs will get their first taste of Babcock’s coaching, which is revered for its attention to detail in preparation and drills. Off the ice, Babcock hopes his players are focused on the task at hand because they’re on the road.
“You can get out and golf or fish or do something, get together for a meal,” Babcock said Thursday in Toronto. “By that time you should be worn out, so you shouldn’t have gone home for a nap and then be going for beers at night. You actually should be having a meal and you should be going to bed at night so you can be prepared to get better the next day.”
This is an important training camp for several players who hope to make a strong first impression on Babcock. And even in a league in which coaches are hired to be fired, he has an eight-year contract and will likely outlast 95 per cent of the roster.
Babcock wants the Leafs to work hard, have fun and enjoy the Halifax area for a few days. They seem ready for that.
“It doesn’t really matter to us,” goaltender Jonathan Bernier said. “It’s time to work now.”
The setting of that work is noteworthy because going away for training camp has become a rarity across the NHL. The Vancouver Canucks are beginning the on-ice portion of camp in Prince George, B.C., and other teams plan getaways for later this month.
This is the first time the Leafs have held a portion of camp outside Ontario since 2001, when the team had Pat Quinn as coach and Mats Sundin as captain and went to St. John’s, N.L.
Current captain Dion Phaneuf makes his off-season home in Prince Edward Island and expects the fan support to be just as strong at BMO Centre. Practices are open to fans who pay for $5 tickets, with proceeds going to KidSport Nova Scotia.
But Phaneuf doesn’t care much about where training camp opens, saying the routine of a team meal and more would be the same.
“The only difference, for me, about moving your training camp as a player is that you just travel,” Phaneuf said.
Travelling is part of the intent, as the Leafs will have to do something next year when the World Cup of Hockey takes over Air Canada Centre in Toronto. For now, players are on board with something a little different.
“I think it’s good to get away a little bit, experience something new as a group, get to know everyone,” defenceman Jake Gardiner said. “There’s a lot of new faces. So I think it’s kind of good to get away a little bit and to start training camp there.”
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Stephen Whyno, The Canadian Press