We have a terrible track record when it comes to attending NHL practices. We’ve had the distinct pleasure of sitting through an optional game-day skate in Buffalo that featured a grand total of six Amerks and Andrew Peters, and on this past Saturday we spent three hours freezing our fannies on the bleachers at South Mountain Arena so we could take in the sights and sounds of exactly zero players taking the ice. So when Pookie decided to take a day off from work so we could make the long drive back up to West Orange today, we should have expected the worst. Well, call us optimists (or people who don’t learn from our mistakes), but we had high hopes. We also came prepared — after spending over five practice-less hours lurking at the rink over the weekend, this time we brought a travel cribbage board.
We arrived at the rink at 10 a.m., and along with a sparse handful of the types you generally expect to see at a dog track on a weekday morning (read: “toothless degenerates”), took our now-familiar seats on the bleachers, encouraged by the sight of green Gatorade bottles lined up along the boards at the bench. Used to waiting (and waiting, and waiting), we were stunned to not have time to finish a game of cribbage before Frank Doyle and Kevin Weekes materialized on the ice in front of us. The fangirls in us were saddened by Jordy Parise’s absence, but the old hands at sitting around the rink with nothing to watch in us were thrilled that this probably meant an actual practice was going to happen. A few more guys trickled out onto the ice, and our enthusiasm was slowly tempered; as the six skaters and two goalies started whooshing around in laps, led by just the assistant coaches, it became clear that we’d ventured all the way up there for the dreaded optional practice. And if there’s one thing our Devils can be counted on, it’s to opt out of these things.
We aren’t really complaining, though — the session was awesome. The stalwarts who showed up were Patty, Pando, Tallackson, Noah Clarke (no, we didn’t recognize him), Matvichuk, Paulie and the aforementioned goalies. Things started out with the bobo passing drills we watched the scrubs doing on Sunday after the big squad’s practice had ended, then moved on to some mundane shooting drills. We were somewhat titillated by the presence of a professional photographer in the bleachers with us (and were startled to discover a photo gallery of the day’s work on the Devils’ website when we got home), but things definitely started slowly. We could only imagine Boomer was crushingly disappointed after our excited reports of all the thrills and chills from Sunday’s full-team practice. But after the humdrum drills ended, things started getting fascinating. First they kicked into a drill that seemed to be all about the d-men making quick outlet passes, or something, and after failing to grasp the relatively simple two-step drill, Paulie needed a lengthy one-on-one with Larry Robinson to figure out what was going on. This would be a theme for the rest of the morning for poor Paulie.
The outlet pass drill was followed with a much more complicated drill that was started with some back-and-forth passing between a forward and the d-man as they skated up half the ice, then the forward was to peel off so the d-man could swoop back around to stop the second forward, who was to carry the puck up the entire length of the rink to be defended one-on-one. Matvichuk went first, facing Clarke and Patty, and then Paulie took on Tallackson and Pando. Neither d-man seemed to know what he was supposed to be doing. Larry stopped things and demonstrated what looked to our untrained eyes to be a fairly straightforward economy-of-motion hip-swiveling stop-and-turn technique that would make the whole affair much simpler than the laborious approaches to skating that Matvichuk and Paulie were employing. The two tried the drill again, with little improvement. After Paulie’s stab at it, Pookie clearly saw Matvichuk skate over to him and ask, “Did that seem ass-backward to you?” Hee hee! This drill went on for ages, the two d-guys looking increasingly exhausted and decreasingly capable of the easy little “flip!” Larry was trying to get them to do. Sure, there was probably something very complex and skaterly to the move that totally eludes us, but it was endlessly entertaining to our ignorant eyes to watch the two guys repeatedly trying and failing to learn this little move. It was also mind blowing to realize that, even for a hoary old vet like Matvichuk, there is stuff for professional hockey players to learn at practices. This is not something we ever really consider; it seems that they go to practices just because that’s what they’re supposed to do. The thought that they go to practices to, we don’t know… practice things is just remarkable! It was nice to see how patient and teacherly Larry was — he seems to have gotten over his nervous breakdown swimmingly, and is back in his happy place of dispensing wisdom to lesser young defensemen than he.
We paid remarkably little attention to the forwards, because, well — Paulie. Come on, Gentle Reader. You didn’t think we’d not be keeping our eyes glued to our S,PAW when he was pretty much the only thing going on on the ice? It was an hour well spent for us, then, to see him working so doggedly at these drills and being a total teacher’s pet. He smilingly and eagerly lapped up all the attention Larry gave him, and when Larry sent a forward out with “secret instructions” to cheat on the drill, it was Matvichuk he sent Patty out against. Larry’s not about to mess with everyone’s favorite Goldenest Gopher! Of course, we do have some actual, pertinent team news to comment on. We were thrilled to see that Patty, Pando and Paulie were all back from their recent bouts of “tightness” (groin, hip and “midsection”, respectively); they all appeared to be skating without any difficulty, and all three managed to stay on the ice for the entire duration of practice. Of course, Paulie might have fewer tightness issues if he actually stretched when the rest of the guys do at the start and end of practice. Everyone congregates at center ice and someone leads the little “humping the ice” stretches, and Paulie just sits there like he’s too good to hump the ice or something. After Sunday we wondered if he was just as stretch-negligent when there are fewer people to hide behind, and the answer is, emphatically, yes. Meanwhile, Pando stretches like his life depends on it, and seemed to be making deliberate “This is the greatest stretch EVAH!!” faces in Paulie’s direction. Paulie remained unmoved.
Anyway, practice ended with a long chat session at center ice between Larry and the d-men, and, realizing the Devils had the ice reserved for the afternoon, we wondered if maybe the morning skate was for guys who hadn’t played in Lowell last night, and a big practice with a Sutter sighting might follow. Yeah, we’re idiots, but we can’t help it that the Devils don’t publicize their practice schedule. We walked across the street to get some fries at McDonalds, then settled on a bench outside the zoo behind the rink to soak up some of the 90-degrees-and-humid weather we all love so well here in Jersey. (And no, we’re not kidding. It was 90 today. Nature, hello! It’s almost hockey season! Get with the program here!) Boomer’s impressions of the practice were focused pretty heavily on “I had no idea Tommy Albelin was so handsome!” (and seriously, the Devils are rocking some silver foxes on the assistant coaching staff. This point can’t be driven home enough), while Pookie and Schnookie were marveling at how short the Devils’ attention spans seem to be. They have to be reminded constantly of what they’re doing in each drill, and have a hard time translating drill instructions into drill performance.
After our little repast, we went back inside in the hopes of catching an afternoon skate. And we set ourselves up in our favorite activity — sitting around South Mountain when absolutely nothing is going to happen. There were no Gatorade bottles on the bench, no towels or cooler outside the dressing room. Just the familiar, empty rink. We played several hands of cribbage (Schnookie destroyed Pookie), while Boomer, bundled up to the point of looking like a hobo in the dead of winter, quietly read. The few other fans in attendance gave up the vigil one at a time, until it was just us and some dude standing on the other side of the ice. Seconds turned to minutes, and minutes turned to an hour. Finally we spotted Matt Laughlin striding around the perimeter of the rink, and could tell from across the building that he was answering the dude’s question about whether the Devils were ever going to skate with a polite “No.” It was nice to hear that — he saved us the last half hour we were going to give them before giving up ourselves.
There was one more stop to be made before our day was complete, though. Gentle Reader, you have probably noticed by now that we have a rather florid mythology created in our minds around one Zach Parise. The turtle-of-affairs, the revenge schemes, the swanky boarding school. So you can probably imagine how much we laugh at the way that Zach reportedly spent a sizable chunk of his rookie year living in a Residence Inn, as many young guys making their first NHL teams do. We have a marvelous mental image of his time being spent in a hotel not unlike the extended-stay hotel we use when we visit New Orleans; located across the street from a Coke bottling plant and next door to an OTB, it is the most depressing place on earth. On Sunday we went from practice to a wedding shower in the next town over, and along the drive we completely lost our shit for how hard we were laughing when we spotted a ritzy, Italianate-architectured structure with signage indicating it was a Residence Inn. Suddenly Zach living there made perfect sense. So today we promised Boomer we’d drive her past it. We wended our way there, and when we arrived a gleaming-new black SUV with Michigan plates and a young man yakking on his cell phone behind the wheel pulled into the parking lot in front of us. We weren’t stalking, per se, but we couldn’t help but innocently follow the SUV around the parking lot (there was no other way out, we swear!) and then couldn’t help but notice it was Andy Greene. Proof! Proof that of course the famous Residence Inn used by young Devils is, in fact, the world’s most hilariously ornate Residence Inn, as would only be appropriate for our imaginary Zach and the fastidious Boxworthy.
So basically, the day boiled down to a highly educational hour of watching Larry serve as Paulie’s defense-tutor, a sweltering lunch at the gigglingly-named Turtle Back Zoo (“I say, Boxworthy, what are you doing in that wildlife exhibit?”), another hour-plus of quiet time to ourselves in a deserted rink, and then a few minutes of shrieking laughter thanks to some unintentional stalking at the Residence Inn. All in all, a splendidly wonderful day!