The Sept. 19 start of formal training camp is still six days off, but that has not prevented 21 familiar faces in Washington Capitals uniforms from scuffing up the ice surface at Fort Dupont.
It's all voluntary, of course, or the wrath of the NHL Players' Association would fall on the Capitals, just as it forced Detroit general manager, Ted Lindsay to cancel a physical fitness clinic in Hamilton, Ontario, a few weeks ago.
"They were kidding me about wearing skates out there," laughed coach Tom McVie, between sessions of firing tennis balls at the goalies. "We've had fitness sessions at Ottawa and we're having the goalies in here, but we've never told anyone he has to come, and we don't bug them. Of course, none have ever refused."
Garry Smith, the team's new goalie, and Roger Swanson checked in yesterday to join Bernie Wolfe, Jim Bedard, Dale Rideout, Rollie Boutin and Roger Crozier, all of whom have been drilling since the session, officially designated as an unofficial goaltenders' camp, began Thursday.
"We were going to work out regardless," said Wolfe. "The Caps were nice enough to get us ice. It's good having supervision, because you don't risk getting hurt with three guys coming in shooting at once or anything like that. I'm working as hard as I can and when I get tired I get off the ice. It's got to make training camp easier."
The bearded Smith looked slim with only 214 pounds on his 6-foot-4 frame. He has been told to play at 200, a figure he said he last scaled 18 years ago, at age 15.
"I feel good," Smith said, "and the lower weight should help me. I was 215 when I turned pro and it's been up and down since, mostly up. The first day is the roughest, and this was rough, but it will make next week a lot simpler."
Yesterday's workout lasted 2 1/2 hours because McVie, halfway through, decided that "they seem to be enjoying it so much, I got an extra half-hour of ice."
With tails dragging down the rink, McVie noted that "they're getting tired. That's good.
Although goalies are the primary target of the Fort Dupont operation, there has been no shortage of skaters to work with them.
Guy Charron is testing his damaged knee, Rick Green is flexing his repaired wrist and Gerry Meehan, Bryan Watson, Ron Lalonde, Jack Lynch and Hartland Monahan, among others, are demonstrating that McVie's summer fitness program left little opportunity to put on weight. They also are demonstrating that an invitation from McVie is difficult to decline.
"Volunteer? Who's a volunteer?" laughed one veteran.
"I volunteered to come out and have a little fun, but we've really been working," said another.
"It's O.K., just as long as we don't hear that whistle for another two weeks," said a third, referring to McVie's orchestration of the gruelling stops and starts that transform hockey players' legs into jelly.
The absence of the conditioning exercises is just one indication of the informality of the current daily workouts. Another was displayed by Charron, who batted a tennis ball at McVie and asked him what he knew about goaltending.
"All I know about goalie is that when I was playing they were hard to score against," McVie replied, but he was hardly truthful.
While Crozier generally supervises the workouts, McVie uses a Lob Star machine to fire tennis balls at the goalies. The idea is to improve reflexes, but McVie can't resist aiming for the most vulnerable areas, usually glove side high, and then smirking a bit at the resultant "goal."
The first day, the goalies had an unobstructed view of the cannonading balls. But by Friday McVie had players screening a couple of feet in front. McVie is never satisfied with the status quo.
"It's a good thing," McVie said, "because nobody ever practiced screen shots before. In the history of hockey, they couldn't find anybody who'd go in front of the net."
A Capital Centre camera crew, using a Videocorder, shot the goalies from different vantage points. McVie was determining the best angles for filming, because he plans to erect scaffolding at the best locations in the stands for more comprehensive studies during training camp at Hershey, Pa.
"If you can show a goalie he's leaning too much on one side or the other when a guy shoots, he'll do something about," McVie said. "But he won't if you just tell him.
"I think this camp is great for the goalies. At training camp we're working on so many things, with 50 guys, the goalies sometimes get left out. And that first day of drills, they literally tear the thousand shots they'll have to face. This camp takes the fear away, and it will make those pads feel a lot lighting."
McVie, after perfect passing by Lynch and Lalonde set up Craig Patrick for a picture goal, leaped from his seat and shouted," Yeah, way to go. Save those sticks for the opener."
"I want to get going," McVie said. "Wednesday night I didn't sleep, trying to get every detail of this camp set. It'll be the same way in Hershey. The regular season? I hope to get the proper sleep. But when you're as enthusiastic as I am, you just lie there planning things. I like to think I've worked harder than any coach in the NHL, and I intend to work harder."
The players can expect the same. Crozier recalled that during most of his career he would simply receive a notice to report to camp on Sept. 15 "and they wouldn't know whether I had one leg or not." Today hockey is a year-round occupation, with individual summer fitness schedules, group testing programs, frequent telephone followups and goalie camps.