A hard day's Knight

RYAN PYETTE, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:43 PM ET

There is something more intimidating than playing in front of 9,000 hockey fans at the John Labatt Centre.

Try keeping up with a handful of the Knights prospects - the "Black Aces," head coach Dale Hunter calls 'em - while Chris Tierney, London's latest first-rounder, delivers a quick shot to your back.

"I got you all day, No. 6," the baby-faced Tierney chirped.

I have a confession to make.

For one hour last Friday afternoon at the JLC, I was No. 6, the enthusiastic old guy plopped into a hungry group of Knights-to-be, all in the name of Plimpton-esque participatory sports journalism.

It wasn't my bright idea.

It was the brainchild of Free Press sports editor David Langford who, likely sick of hearing me brag about my Junior B glory days, called Knights assistant GM Jim McKellar, got it rubber-stamped by Dale Hunter, then strolled down to Human Resources to find out what would happen if I got hurt.

The thumbs-up from HR led me straight to the feet of Misha Donskov, the Knights' passionate assistant coach who spent time helping the NHL Thrashers in the puck hot-bed of Atlanta before returning home to learn the famous Hunter hockey how-to.

Donskov, great guy off-ice but all business on it, heads the Black Aces, whose ranks have swollen to a dozen. He, like his young charges, take this hour - from 2:15 p.m. to 3:15 p.m. on game days - seriously.

"This is a full-time job for these guys," Donskov explained. "This is the Knights' future. We do mix it up to keep it fresh but we have our staple drills. The D-zone (defensive zone) coverage, the PP (power play), the penalty kill, those are crucial. These guys have to know the system so when they do get back in the lineup, they're not lost."

Sustained success here is the ticket for every Ace.

"You don't want to be here Friday afternoon," said Kevin Raine, a promising defenceman from Dryden. "Everyone wants to be in the game Friday night."

That teenage hunger and desire is powerful stuff. There's underlying anxiety, pressure and uncertainty in every player's spot on the team.

Every newcomer is noted, his place on the pecking order instantly established.

"You're going on the ice?" Jake Worrad, the injured Knights defenceman asked me with an incredulous look. "For practice?"

Then he saw my wooden sticks. The trusty Sher-Wood 5030s - 29 bucks at Home Hardware - I used in St. Thomas back when Knights equipment guru Chris Maton was just a gear-fixing newbie there.

"They're ancient," Worrad observed.

Unfettered, I got Free Press photographer Mike Hensen to pull my sweater over the orange shoulder pads I hadn't worn in 15 years but found in my garage under the artificial Christmas tree, then hit the ice with the players half my age.

Donskov went over the drills. Sounded like simple criss-crosses, easy transitions, defencemen hitting the forwards on the fly, then coming back for two-on-ones and two-on-twos.

I got lost at hello. I did the smart thing, though - stood behind veteran Pieter Schinkelshoek and copied his every move.

A couple of things stand out at ice level.

First, puck-handling. It's easy to see Tierney has immense skill. He's struggled to stay healthy so far but you can see why the Hunters and Co. like his ability.

Second, prospect Jarred Tinordi, at 6'7,'' looks even taller than he does from the 300 seats.

Each drill was punctuated by two hard laps, followed by pushups and situps. The first half-hour felt good and I celebrated with a sweet pass to young Mike Verboom at the tail end of a two-on-one.

"Nice sauce," one of the Rupert twins said with a grin.

The second half-hour was a struggle.

I teamed up with Verboom and Aaron Dartch for defensive zone coverage. This is the key to Hunter hockey. If you're tidy in your own end, you can play Friday nights.

Donskov might as well have asked me "Where's Waldo?" I lost a faceoff to Tierney, got turned inside out by both Ruperts.

Next time around, maybe sensing we weren't going to touch the puck again, Dartch said, "I'll take this draw."

With the hour drawing near its end, though, Greg Milner committed one of the all-time great gaffes. He scored way too quickly to end a fun free-for-all.

So with time on the clock, Donskov suddenly transformed into the Mad Russian.

He ordered a bag-skate: All the way down and back hard for 45 seconds straight.

"This drill is new," Raine said disapprovingly.

The first two trips are manageable. The third, the legs feel like rubber bands. Pure torture, unless you're 16 years old or a Tour de France veteran.

Post-practice verdict?

"I saw you trying to get out of that skating drill," Donskov teased.

"Hey, (Free Press photographer Mike) Hensen needed some help with the video camera," I pleaded.

"You need some work on your d-zone coverage and your conditioning," he said, "but overall, good job."

The rest of the guys? Off to the weight room for another workout. It never ends for them.

They do it knowing this is one step on the way to Knights glory. They won't be Black Aces forever.

But thanks to them, I got a chance to be one, too.

Knights of the future

The Black Aces lineup last Friday when Free Press sports reporter Ryan Pyette joined them:

Forwards: Mike Verboom, Aaron Dartch, Pieter Schinkelshoek, Greg Milner, Ryan Rupert, Matt Rupert, Brett Welychka, Chris Tierney Defence: Jarred Tinordi (rehabbing injured knee), Kevin Raine, Dan Morin, Tommy Hughes Goalies: Mark Foley, Chris McCullough

Pyette's five funny on-ice moments

1. Free Press video editor Mike Knoll won't find it a hoot, but photographer Mike Hensen hooked me up with a pricey microphone for on-ice sound. Midway through practice, it dislodged and a Knights defenceman skated over the wire. Total silence.

2. Poor, conflicted defenceman Tommy Hughes. A total nice guy, I could tell he didn't want to cross-check an old dude in the neck while I went to the net for a Dino Ciccarelli-style screen. He playfully tied up my stick and blocked me out.

3. Going for a tip-in with 6'7'' defenceman Jarred Tinordi winding up for a slapper from the point, then remembering in fear how many times I've seen him thunder one over the net during games. He kept it low and on target.

4. Asking Knights athletic therapist Andy Scott if he'd dash onto the ice if he saw me banged up. "I'd get out there - eventually," he said. "I'd probably walk, take my time." Hey, thanks.

5. Asking Blackhawks scout Jim McKellar to send my practice video to Chicago. Never know when Pat Kane and Dave Bolland might need a new linemate, and hey, aren't the Hawks in some kind of salary cap mess? I'd be cheap labour.

E-mail ryan.pyette@sunmedia.ca, or follow Ryanpyette on Twitter.


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