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Red Wings overnight report: young Wings team must get in gear quickly, mend fences with fans

The Detroit Red Wings' abbreviated training camp, which will continue at Comuware Arena today (click here for all the details) with practices from 12-12:45 PM and 1-1:45 PM (again, the doors open at 11, admission and parking are free, concessions stands will be open, and there will be a scrimmage on Tuesday at 6 PM, which will also be free to the public, and aired on Fox Sports Detroit and 97.1 the Ticket)...

Opened to a predictable amount of fan support on a rainy Sunday afternoon, with about 2,000 fans appearing at the 3,400-seat rink on a little over twelve hours' of official notice, as the Detroit News's Ted Kulfan noted:

The numbers weren't as big as some other cities, but the level of fan animosity regarding the lockout was and continues to be very high in Metro Detroit, and to put it bluntly, the Wings' "Thanks For Sticking With Us" policy of open practices is very new.

That being said, the most important people in the rink on Sunday told the Free Press's George Sipple that they were happy to see their beloved Wings back on the ice...

The Red Wings didn't have to win Justin Loechli back as a fan. "I was never gone," said Loechli, 26, of South Lyon.

Loechli, wearing a Red Wings T-shirt, was among an estimated crowd of 2,000 who came out Sunday afternoon to watch the start of training camp at Compuware Arena in Plymouth.

The NHL and the NHL Players' Association recently agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement. A 48-game regular season will begin this weekend. Loechli said he wasn't mad at the Wings during the lockout.

"With the NHL and the players' association? Yes," he said. "But never at the Wings."

Mark Roe, 52, of Livonia brought 12-year-old son Justin to watch practice. Mark said he was wearing a Red Wings sweater for the first time since the lockout began.

"I'm not fond of the owners," Roe said. "The players had to stand up for what's right, what they believe in."

Father and son said they think the Wings will make the playoffs.

"It'll be tough," Justin said. "Just from recent history, I think they will continue the streak."

And the Detroit News's ever-verbose-but-thoughtful Gregg Krupa found that Wings fans were indeed mostly satisfied to see and hear Red Wings players skate and practice instead of watching NHL and NHLPA executives bicker on TV...

"It's great, I feel like we're just getting going again," Jack Pierson, 16, of Livonia said as the Red Wings skated at their first practice session Sunday at Compuware Arena. "I miss the NHL. I missed hockey a lot. And I feel like this is just the start of it."

But Krupa also found that the Red Wings have their work cut out for them in a sports marketplace where most fans have been through two lockouts now, and many have endured three--with Krupa duly noting that, this time around, the NHL did not lie to fans about ticket prices going down when they came to a new collective bargaining agreement.

The Red Wings have announced fees are waived on tickets sold for a specific time frame. While that is a nice break, the Wings have done so before, and no fans interviewed Sunday said they perceived that as a discounted ticket, only a waived fee.

When burnishing a tarnished brand such considerations are essential. Some other franchises are providing free food, hot dogs, pizza, chips, popcorn and soda pop during practices. Others will discount the purchase of licensed goods by 20-30 percent. The Stars and Penguins will offer game tickets at a discount.

"It's not cheap," Chris Pinta said. "For four of us to go and sit up in the top level at The Joe, you have to pump out a chunk of change. It would be nice to get a few games at least at reduced rates, because I think they owe the fans some things, and I know a lot of businesses have suffered down in Detroit, as well."

That's very, very true, and while I most certainly have some animosity toward the NHL and even the PA--and even the Wings, to some extent--lingering in my head and heart, it is incredibly important to remember that the folks who work at the Joe, the folks who work at local restaurants, bars, parking garages, hotels and even those who sell merchandise have been hurting terribly as they were the ones hardest hit by the lockout, and we Wings fans should not hold any grudges toward them.

The apology Mike and Marian Ilitch issued last week was perceived as genuine, many fans said. In fact, the fans were nearly unanimous in absolving the Ilitches from any blame for the lockout. The owners clearly remain highly popular, and fans are grateful.

"It's great that it's free and we appreciate the fact that they let us into it for free," said Laura Gordon of Plymouth, who packed six children, four her own and two friends', into a vehicle early and got them to the arena long before the scheduled start of practice.

Wings fans expect more from their ownership, however...

James Grassmyer, 25, of Canton said the offer of $9 tickets to some selected home games last season should be expanded.

"We could help each other, if they do $9 tickets the day of the game," Grassmyer said. "You can buy cheap tickets and they still fill the seats."

And there's definitely a sense that the Wings should do more in the way of allowing fans who aren't season ticket-holders to watch practices and meet players in the community. The Wings have made tremendous strides toward establishing a downright aggressive presence in Metro Detroit in terms of charitable events, but in addition to delivering on-ice results, there will be even more work necessary to be done in the post-Lidstrom era to mend fences with the fan base.

"They need to do something to keep us happy," said Frank Ilardi, 57, of Canton. "At least Ilitch didn't charge us five bucks to watch this practice. A free practice is real nice."

It's a wonderful start, and I applaud the Wings for doing what they're doing. Their, "Thanks For Sticking With Us" slogan and initiative emphasizes a sincere appreciation for the people who pay everyone's salaries.

I also believe that sustained effort from all parties to mend fences over an extended period of time--fans included--will heal a lockout-induced wound that really dampened the enthusiasm of both the most casual and most dedicated die-hard fans (who tend to spend as much of their discretionary income as possible following their Wings).

We live in a world whose most recent election cycle illustrated that we are a people marred by deep divisions, and there is something to be said for finding activities where we can come together and get behind something that's positive, something that fosters social bonds and something that unites us even through our passionate disagreements and disparate points of view.

Hockey does that, and now's as good a time as any for those of us who've been in lockout mourning to come back to our Wings, but again, it's gonna take time for the organization to restore our faith in spending our time, energy and especially our money watching our favorite professional sports team. Hockey is a business, and we're happy to support it financially, but there is a divide to be bridged, and we'll have to see how things play out both on and off the ice in that regard.

It is equally important to point out that the Red Wings' players and coaches were thrilled to be performing in front of their fans, as they told the Free Press's Helene St. James...

Justin Abdelkader, on the first practice: "It felt great to be out there. It was a good tempo. The first part was pretty fast. We need to get our work in because the season will be here quick. We gotta make sure we're ready really quick."

Johan Franzen, on the first practice: "It was a good, smart first day. It was faster than what we've been used to, especially us skating on our own. It was really fun to get going. Had a little adrenaline going before we got out there. It feels real good to be back."

Jonathan Ericsson, on finally starting training camp: "Do you have a dog? You know when you let them loose and they've been inside for 10 hours? That's how I felt. Just running around. It was just so fun to be out there."

Ericsson, on the first practice: "It was a good practice. I think it was a pretty solid tempo. I think everyone was just happy to get going and get started. I think it was a good start."


Brendan Smith, on playing at Compuware Arena for the first time: "Growing up in Toronto, watching the OHL play, I've never actually been on this ice in Plymouth. It's kind of cool to try out some new rinks. ... I was actually excited to get on the ice and get back out there with some of these guys, share the ice with some of these fantastic players."

And the Detroit News's Ted Kulfan...

"I told the guys this morning, I missed them," coach Mike Babcock said. "We've got great people on this team, and being around them is a thrill. Watching them today, how hard they worked, it's pretty special to get to do what we all do."

Said forward Henrik Zetterberg: "It was great to be back out there skating again with the guys. A great experience. It felt like we were in Traverse City."

The 3,500-seat arena was about half- to two-thirds full during most of the session and spectators were enthusiastic. The Wings continue skating today at Compuware Arena (noon-1:45 p.m.) and Tuesday (9:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. scrimmage with minor league Grand Rapids Griffins).

Who offers up the real "storylines" of the day.

First, Darren Helm may or may not be able to play in Tuesday's scrimmage as he has a sore back, but at least an MRI revealed no serious damage to his back...

"They (doctors) said it wasn't anything, so it's just day-to-day and I'm hoping I'll get back at it soon," said Helm, who hurt himself doing squats Thursday in the weight room. "It's kind of hard to bend down and touch my toes right now or pick anything up."

Second, Patrick Eaves has been cleared for contact, though even Eaves isn't sure whether his post-concussive headaches are gone for good:

"It felt good, and I can do whatever we do out there," Eaves said. "It's more than anything I could have done out there a little while ago. It's a step forward and I just have to keep making progress."

As Kulfan said on Twitter...

Eaves' speed, forechecking ability, penalty-killing prowess and shot-blocking skills were all sorely missed last season.

Storyline the third? If you do attend Tuesday's scrimmage, you will probably see Henrik Zetterberg wearing the captain's "C" for the first time, though Zetterberg played, "Mum's the word" while discussing the possibility of succeeding Nicklas Lidstrom with reporters:

"When the word comes, it will be an honor if that is the case," Zetterberg said. "I've sat next to Stevie ( Yzerman ) for a couple of seasons, and been with Nick. There's been a lot of leaders here to learn from."

Babcock believes the leadership structure of the team remains strong.

"That's a big part of what has happened here over the years, and we're trying to continue to do the same thing," Babcock said. "Z and Kroner (Niklas Kronwall) and Pav (Pavel Datsyuk) are huge leaders and there's a great support group for those guys as well. I don't expect that part to miss a beat."

Storyline the fourth will include tears, "for sure"...

Tomas Holmstrom 's retirement is expected to be announced Thursday or Friday.

Zetterberg offered some winks and nudges to the Free Press's Helene st. James as well...

"Of course I'm thrilled and really honored if that will be the case," Zetterberg said, opting to caution his comments until the announcement is official. "I've been seated next to Stevie a few years, and I've been with Nick many years. I think playing on this team for the years I've done now, there's been a lot of leaders, and you try to learn things from every one."

The Wings didn't want to make the announcement last summer and couldn't during the 113-day lockout that ended Jan. 5. They haven't been able to get together for formal practices until Sunday, the day after the collective bargaining agreement finally became official.

The Wings also wanted all of Zetterberg's teammates to attend the announcement, and Pavel Datsyuk, who stayed in Russia for the weekend to play in the KHL All-Star Game, is due to fly back today and be with his Detroit teammates Tuesday.

Datsyuk and Niklas Kronwall will remain alternate captains.

And St. James explains why Tomas Holmstrom won't make his retirement official until training camp shifts back to Joe Louis Arena after an "off day" on Wednesday (the Thursday morning practice, Thursday evening scrimmage and Friday morning practice will all be open to the public at the Joe, too):

In other big news, the retirement of Tomas Holmstrom will take place either Thursday or Friday. The Wings want to have the news conference at Joe Louis Arena, which has been rented through Tuesday by Ford to prepare for the North American International Auto Show. Holmstrom, who turns 40 on Jan. 23, retires after 15 seasons, four Stanley Cups, countless goals scored with his back to the net and a legacy of admirers who recognize few have done a finer job playing in front of the net.

There are three more stories of note, including the arrival of Swiss scoring sensation and friend-of-Zetterberg Damien Brunner, as noted by MLive's Ansar Khan (Khan says that Brunner won't be hanging out at Zetterberg's house this time around, but he is slated to start the season alongside Zetterberg and Datsyuk...

The Red Wings opened training camp Sunday at Compuware Arena. Brunner called his first day “fun and intense.''

“More intense than Switzerland, like drills rolling and rolling, no break,'' Brunner said. “Not much explanation, but it was good. Hank was helping me out quite a bit. I knew the drills pretty quick.''

He will spend the next several days taking a crash course on NHL rinks, which are 15 feet narrower than those in Europe.

“No space (in the NHL), so it's a different game,'' Babcock said. “We think he's obviously a real talented guy. Time's going to tell how he adapts. It worked out as good for him as it possibly could have because he was leading the (Swiss) league in scoring again, and Z comes over, he develops a friendship, a confidence to play with real good players. Now he's just got to keep doing the same thing. So we're excited about having him."

The lack of room to maneuver, relatively speaking, was evident to Brunner right away.

“On the breakouts, the defensemen are closer to you,'' Brunner said. “But I like it also in the offensive zone. You come out of the corner, you beat one guy, you're basically right in front of the net. I hope I can bring a lot of speed and shots at the net and challenge the defensemen one- on-one.''

Mike Knuble most certainly offers an intriguing element as a 40-year-old tryout and something of an x-factor as the Wings could very well ask the Kentwood, MI native to start the season in Grand Rapids and work his way up--or, as the Free Press's Sipple suggested, Knuble could very well use his massive size to push himself onto the team's roster...

"If you can come back and finish where you started, I think it would be a good thing, it would be fun," said Knuble, who played at Michigan. "Is that going to happen? Probably the odds are greatly against me."

It would have been tough for Knuble to make an impression during a normal training camp. With just one week before the NHL begins a 48-game schedule after the lockout, it probably would take a rash of injuries for Knuble to secure a spot. Knuble (6-feet-3, 230 pounds) is grateful for the opportunity.

"Teams are going to go with guys they have," Knuble said. "The guys they know. It's just an opportunity to play. You get your name out there that you're still active, still looking to play. This organization is very highly regarded around the league, so if they're going to give you a shot, if it doesn't work out here, then it opens some eyes somewhere else."

It is most certainly worth noting that Ken Holland likes Knuble's size, physicality, and the familiarity factor...

"Are the odds long? Yeah," general manager Ken Holland said of Knuble earning a roster spot. "We drafted him. We know him. He's a big body. He's from Grand Rapids, skated with Grand Rapids. You never know. We've taken risks before. Some panned out, some haven't. He's played in the NHL. What's to lose?"

And the fact that Knuble wants to go to the front of the net and stay there--like Tomas Holmstrom--doesn't hurt, either:

"My game, through the course of the years, has been a net-presence guy on power plays," Knuble said. "I think I'm pretty responsible defensively, and I've killed penalties. I think I've been pretty versatile. I've played on the top line. I've played on the fourth line and everywhere in between."

Finally, I'm really happy that Michigan Hockey Now chose to have Nick Barnowski interview Justin Abdelkader, because it is worth pointing out that the departures of Lidstrom, Holmstrom, Brad Stuart and even Joey MacDonald leave the Wings a much younger team.

If you look at the Wings' roster, 37-year-old Todd Bertuzzi and 36-year-old Mikael Samuelsson are now the team's "graybeards," with Zetterberg (32), Kronwall (32), Datsyuk (34), Johan Franzen (33) and Danny Cleary (#4) in the over-30 club, with Carlo Colaiacovo set to join them on January 27th, and Jordin Tootoo set to turn 30 on February 2rd...

But even including Colaiacovo and Tootoo in the mix, the team has 15 players on the roster who are under 29 years of age, and 16 players under 29 if you include Brian Lashoff, who's been called up as a "just in case" warm body.

This is a young team, and by Red Wings standards, an incredibly young team, so players like the Wings' presumptive fourth line center will have to translate their enthusiasm into leadership in short order...

"It’s great to get all the guys back here and get some skates in,” the Muskegon native said. “We’re looking forward to spending a few days here and getting back to the Joe and starting up.”

Abdelkader, who scored 22 points in 81 games last season, knows that it’s going to be a little bit tougher to get back into grind of the season with a training camp that’s much shorter than their usual September camp.

“Obviously guys know that we don’t have the luxury of time to get ready,” he said. “But everyone’s in the same boat, so hopefully we’ll be ready by Saturday.”

While previous camps have allowed the team to settle in at a slower pace, Mike Babcock and the Wings coaching staff are going to up the tempo in an effort to prepare the team for their first game on January 19 vs the Blues. Abdelkader commented on the pace of the practice after the skate.

“It’s similar [to prior years] but I’d still say it was faster. We worked out in the morning, came here, got a couple of ice sessions in, so the pace should help us get ready.”

After seeing the turnout the team had for the first day of practice, Abdelkader is encouraged about the response from the fans after the 113-day lockout.

“I think the free practices are awesome,” he said. “The fans deserve that for what they had to go through the past three or four months and it’s great they could come out and watch.”

And Barnowski's story transitions us into what is going to be the main narrative over the next week.

On Saturday, this very young and very different Red Wings team will start a stretch of 48 games played over the course of only 99 nights, and with no exhibition games to allow the new faces and younger players thrust into prominent roles to acclimate to a team that has no Lidstrom, no Stuart, no Holmstrom, and to a lesser extent, no Jiri Hudler, no Mike Commodore, no Doug Janik, no Joey MacDonald and no Ty Conklin--even the Wings' likely call-ups in Lashoff, Tomas Tatar, Gustav Nyquist, Joakim Andersson, Riley Sheahan and Adam Almquist are all under 25...

So Mike Babcock, new associate coach Tom Renney, Bill Peters, video coach Keith McKittrick and goalie coaches Jim Bedard and Chris Osgood have their work cut out for them in terms of translating enthusiasm into action, as Babcock told the Macomb Daily's Chuck Pleiness...

“We’re ecstatic to be back, to have the opportunity to play,” Babcock explained. “When you do something you absolutely love and you don’t get to do it, maybe you’ve taken it for granted a little bit. I told the guys this morning I really missed them. I’ve got to tell you, we’ve got great people on this team, being around them all the time is a thrill for me.”

Sunday’s event was broken into two separate 45-minute sessions. Each was run at breakneck pace. Babcock led the squad through several drills, all of which placed clear emphasis on speed and puck movement. Rests were nonexistent.

In the second session, former Edmonton Oilers head coach and current Wings associate coach Tom Renney took more of a leading role. The team worked on its power play and penalty kill. The session ended with conditioning skates and, finally, a salute by the players to the crowd.

As first practices of the year are concerned, Babcock was pleased with what he saw. Though he and his staff have very little time to evaluate players, the goal is to make as much of the truncated camp as possible.

“I thought the pace was real good,” he said. “I thought it was pretty good. Obviously, you start and you’re excited. Then you get worn out a little bit. But, then we play three games in four nights and our third game in four nights is our home opener. It’s life.”

Babcock conceded that it is simply impossible to replicate the evaluation process that would go on during a normal-length camp. However, he did say that the shortened season would likely create even more opportunities for players on the bubble to eventually gain a role with the team.

“Normally in a five-week training camp you get an opportunity to give everybody over eight exhibition games the power play, the penalty kill, everything to really show what they have,” Babcock explained. “That’s not going to happen. So it’s very important as a player, if you don’t like your lot you’ve been given day one, that you choose your attitude right, you work hard and you stay. There’s going to be a ton of injuries (and) you’re going to get an opportunity.”

And the Free Press's Helene St. James:

The Wings usually have five weeks to integrate new guys, five weeks to prepare for 82 games. Now they have five days -- they're taking Wednesday off -- to prepare for 48 games in 99 days. The first part of the schedule isn't bad, but come March, there are a lot of road games. Practices will become fewer, good habits more crucial.

(And yes, that means lots of days between games where the Wings simply won't practice, much to the chagrin of the dear gents over at The Production Line)

"It's every day," Babcock said, a catchphrase seemingly destined to define this season. "Over a 48-game schedule in 100 days or whatever, your commitment to eating right and sleeping right and your commitment to off-ice working out and your commitment to constant maintenance is a must. And you've got to do it every day. And if you choose not to, you're going to break down, and that's going to hurt our club. We've had eight months off. I don't think it's too much to have to ask to dig in here. And that's what we're going to have to do to be successful."

Babcock is scared the Wings won't make the playoffs, but that's how he is at the start of every season. Still, this time, there's more reason to be nervous, because Lidstrom was a tremendous part of why the Wings have made the playoffs 21 straight seasons.

The Wings have set a standard so high and for so long that it's hard to think of them as mortals. They will emerge from the lockout in better shape than many other teams, in fan base and future. They still can put Datsyuk on the ice, and Zetterberg. The addition of Brunner gives them depth up front that many teams would envy. The goaltending appears to have improved with the addition of Jonas Gustavsson. The defense needs upgrading, but that could happen with a trade, maybe for Phoenix's Keith Yandle or Calgary's Jay Bouwmeester.

The Wings know they have something to prove over the next four months. Babcock put it in terms of being an everyday challenge, an opportunity to excel as a person for the sake of enabling success as a team. Day 1 went very well, but it's an easy day when it feels like Christmas. Now there's hard work ahead.

In the multimedia department: training camp posts one, two and three included significant amounts of multimedia content.

If you missed them, the Red Wings' website and Facebook page posted training camp photo galleries, as did Michigan Hockey's Michael Caples, the Windsor Star's Dax Melmer and the Detroit News's David Guralnick, and this morning, the Free Press's Julian H. Gonzalez adds one to the mix;

And in the Sunday night video category, via RedWingsFeed, 97.1 the Ticket's Mike Stone stopped by WXYZ's Sunday Sports Update to talk about the Wings, suggesting that the Wings' decision to waive Ticketmaster fees on tickets for 36 hours starting on Thursday isn't exactly a super-duper promotion...

And Currich5 on YouTube posted oodles of content, including four separate clips of practice and Babcock's drills and short-clip interviews with Jordin Tootoo...



Damien Brunner...



Mike Knuble...



Darren Helm...



Niklas Kronwall...



And 3(!) short clips of Mike Babcock's comments to the press...





As well as a two-part set of comments from Zetterberg:




Also of Red Wings-related note:

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SolidTG7's avatar

15 players under 29 years old?  That seems crazy although it still won’t stop the mainstream media from calling them an old team.

Posted by SolidTG7 on 01/14/13 at 09:36 AM ET

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The Malik Report is a destination for all things Red Wings-related. I offer biased, perhaps unprofessional-at-times and verbose coverage of my favorite team, their prospects and developmental affiliates. I've joined the Kukla's Korner family with five years of blogging under my belt, and I hope you'll find almost everything you need to follow your Red Wings at a place where all opinions are created equal and we're all friends, talking about hockey and the team we love to follow.