NORTH SMITHFIELD, R.I. — The players who hit the ice at the Rhode Island Sports Center wore practice jerseys bearing the Spoked-P. The majority of them will never pull on the Boston version.
But they played hockey on Friday, the first day of Providence Bruins’ training camp. With the NHL locked out for nearly two weeks, hockey, regardless of its level, was a welcome arrival.
“I miss it,” Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli said of the NHL. “It’s a real exciting time to see everybody competing for jobs, to see the fruits of our labor throughout the summer with what’s transpired. Yeah, I miss it. I hope to see it soon.”
Had the NHL been operating under normal circumstances, Chiarelli and his colleagues would have been in a different country. The Bruins would have been en route to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. They were scheduled to play the Jets in a preseason game on Saturday.
Instead, Chiarelli, assistant GMs Jim Benning and Don Sweeney, and coaches Claude Julien, Geoff Ward, Doug Houda, and Doug Jarvis were fighting off the chill at the Rhode Island Sports Center.
Jordan Caron, penciled in for third-line duty with the big club, practiced alongside Carter Camper and Craig Cunningham on a skilled threesome. Ryan Spooner, arguably Providence’s top prospect, centered Chris Bourque and Max Sauve.
“It’s good to see the guys out skating,” said Chiarelli. “It’s a little different, a different environment, different setting. But the guys are energetic. We’ll have some scrimmages on the weekend. We’re back at it.”
Chiarelli and the rest of the staff are forbidden from contacting the locked-out players. Through media reports, they have learned of the European signings of Andrew Ference, Anton Khudobin, David Krejci, Rich Peverley, Tyler Seguin, and Dennis Seidenberg. More could follow from the bunch currently skating in Boston or near their respective offseason bases.
Chiarelli can do nothing to prevent further signings. The locked-out players are free to sign wherever they want.
“There’s two sides to that argument,” Chiarelli said of the foreign flight. “One, they may get hurt, knock on wood. Two, they’ll be ready when we start. To each his own.”
So the GM will turn his attention toward Providence and scouting. Chiarelli will monitor prospects in juniors and college. He will also participate in amateur scouting in preparation for the 2013 draft.
All amid the hope, of course, of a swift conclusion to the lockout and the start of the NHL season. Training camp will be shortened, and fewer players are expected to participate.
“If/when, it will be shorter,” Chiarelli said. “There’ll be less players. If it’s into Providence’s year, in fairness to them, you don’t want to pull out half their team. So we have the coaches here to oversee it, to look at these guys, to get a good flavor of these guys.”
It is undetermined how many Providence players would be recalled for main camp. Top-flight prospects such as Caron, Spooner, and Jared Knight would most likely get the call. Chiarelli confirmed that Dougie Hamilton, currently playing for Niagara of the Ontario Hockey League, is eligible to leave his junior team and attend main camp.
Most of Friday’s campers, however, will not be invited up top.
“A lot of them are probably a bit disappointed they didn’t get to go to big camp,” said Providence coach Bruce Cassidy. “That’s part of being a pro. You go there, rub elbows with the [Zdeno] Charas and the [Patrice] Bergerons, then come down here and work on your game. They missed that. But they tested real well. The on-ice was more about getting them to feel the puck.”
For part of this weekend, the players will scrimmage at the Rhode Island Sports Center. Their first preseason game will be Wednesday against Springfield at Marlborough’s New England Sports Center.
The message is clear: The AHL is the main stage. Providence, not Boston, is now the organization’s primary proving ground. For the players, this camp cannot be considered an afterthought.
Because of the lockout, the AHL will have plenty of young talent — including Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Brayden Schenn, and Sean Couturier — to complement its stable of veterans. The competition will be tighter for the first time since 2004-05, the last lockout.
“This is an important time for their development,” Chiarelli said of the message he planned to deliver to the players. “Please focus on it. We’ll let the parties that be take care of the rest at the higher level.”