The awkwardness returns for that first skate after the summer, when the legs feel wobbly and the hands unsure. It happens to veterans deep into their NHL careers, by now accustomed to how their bodies operate. It happens to rookies and roster hopefuls, the ones still learning how to handle the relaxed rhythms of the offseason. It can be scary, if only for a moment, and humbling, too. It makes the Washington Capitals — and the rest of their peers, for that matter — wonder whether, holy smokes, they really do this for a living?
“It feels like Bambi on the ice,” forward Chris Brown said. “Honestly, you feel like a first-time skater.”
Because these are professional hockey players, scraping away the rust that gathered over weeks of dry-land workouts, the phase never lasts long. Maybe a few skating drills with a personal coach. Maybe a few early mornings at the gym back home. Maybe not until they have returned to Kettler Capitals Iceplex for informal practice, around the time newly signed forward Justin Williams usually begins wondering, “Is it going to come back this year?”
After the New York Rangers’ overtime goal in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals booted them from the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Capitals stepped into an unwelcome vacation, each player armed with a personal schedule. Brown first began skating after the July 4 weekend. Defenseman Matt Niskanen hoped to bulk up but first spent several weeks fishing by his lake house in Minnesota. His on-ice partner, Karl Alzner, adopted a looser training schedule to accommodate a newborn daughter, which felt right anyway because he hadn’t missed a single game in five years and needed time to recover.
“Every year you get on the ice, you try to take off a solid anywhere from a month to two months on the ice,” Alzner said. “You don’t want to get on. You’re always excited to play, but you get more excited when you’re away from it. Same thing with lots of things. You get excited leading up to it.
“Then you get on for the first week or two. You feel like you don’t remember how to play. It’s a scary feeling for a week or two, then you realize it’s still there. You just have to sharpen up a little bit. My first practice two days ago, one of the worst I’ve ever felt on the ice. I just traveled, and the energy’s not there, the battle’s not there, and today I felt better already. That’s a positive sign, but it’s not a good feeling.”
Which is to say these sessions at the team’s practice facility, heavily attended since the month began, offer a nice buffer before the rigors of training camp, like the exhausting skate test scheduled the day before the first on-ice session Sept. 17. For some, like forward Michael Latta, who added roughly 15 pounds this offseason in Toronto, the workouts brought confirmation of a productive summer. Center Nicklas Backstrom (hip), goaltender Justin Peters (knee) and defenseman Brooks Orpik (wrist) needed the time to test surgically repaired body parts.
Still others, such as Brown, were reminded of what still needed to be done.
“You’ve been off,” he said. “For me, my feet hurt a lot because I’m probably wearing flip-flops and my feet expand. But around that time you’re probably breaking into some new gear, new skates, so everything is kind of different. It gives you a nice little reality check that it’s time to start ramping things up again and make sure you’re feeling all right.”
After the drills and player-run scrimmage ended Tuesday morning, strength coach Mark Nemish clicked his stopwatch and barked out the ticking seconds as groups of Capitals sped the full length of the ice — a “bag skate,” in hockey parlance. By now, all but four projected Capitals — forward Jay Beagle, forward T.J. Oshie, defenseman Nate Schmidt and captain Alex Ovechkin — had made at least one appearance, and the first three were expected back by Thursday. Some were exhausted, still working back into game shape.
But at least the Bambi phase was gone.
“I don’t want to say it’s easy to play any other sport, but they’re all on your feet and you’re walking around every single day, whereas you get out here and you’ve got to find the edges,” Alzner said. “That’s maybe something that’s a little unique for us. When we’re on the road for a week or two, you come back and you start to drive again, you forget to check your blind spots. . . . It’s just kind of weird. I guess that’s similar to how we feel.”