A community relations hit

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:01 AM ET

YELLOWKNIFE -- None of them really knew what to expect when they boarded a plane for rookie camp in Yellowknife - a remote northern outpost with an iffy climate and little tolerance for satirical cartoons.

Was there snow there, yet? Did cab drivers carry whips and holler "mush"? What were the people like? What was the rink like? Why are we doing this?

Four days later, as the Oilers rookies packed their bags and headed back to Edmonton for main camp, all their questions had been answered.

HAPPY CAMPERS

And they're glad they came.

"It's like a lot of things you do, where at first you're kind of going, 'Aw... it's a bit of an inconvenience to come up here and do this,' " said head coach Craig MacTavish. "But then when you go through the whole process and by the time you finish, you go 'It was really worthwhile.' "

None of the players had ever been here before, but it didn't take long before they were made to feel right at home.

"I knew it was going to be somewhat remote," said rookie forward Ryan O'Marra. "I didn't see a piece of infrastructure till we got to the airport. But once we were here the community embraced us."

Only a couple of them have ever played a regular-season NHL game, but they were wearing Oilers colours, and that was good enough for a jam-packed Shorty Brown Multi-Plex.

"It's been fun, we had a good time," said Andrew Cogliano. "It was good to go to the schools, that was a lot of fun for the guys, to see a lot of kids happy. The Oilers are a big thing up here. To put a smile on a kid's face is a pretty good experience.

"To wear an NHL jacket around and represent a team is something very special. You have to be very respectful and carry yourself well because you're representing a lot of people."

When the final scrimmage ended yesterday, the place erupted in a standing ovation. The campers posed for a team photo at centre ice, under a Training Camp banner that stayed behind them in the rink, and waved their sticks to the crowd in appreciation.

"The players really represented themselves and represented the organization well up here," said MacTavish. "It was a big commitment for them, we kept them busy (with public appearances), but we talked about this being part of the responsibility of playing pro hockey, that you have to give back to the community and I really feel that the players' presence up here, and the way that they conducted themselves really made a difference to a lot of people.

"I thought it was really worthwhile, the experience they got off the ice, going to the schools, going to the hospitals was really impressive.

"And I was really happy with the hockey. That's a pretty major accomplishment for young guys to come in here and establish the level of intensity that you hope the veterans are able to live up to when we get to the main camp. There was more structure than I've seen, maybe ever, from a rookie camp. We had the physical play and the fights and the commitment physically, guys were in good shape - I hope the main camp just carries through on that theme."

LASTING IMPRESSIONS

But it's the off-ice stuff that made the biggest impressions on all of them, seeing just how far-reaching the Oilers logo is.

"A lot of times the apprehension players have, especially young players, for visiting hospitals and schools is they feel they're not a big enough celebrity to make an impact. But when you come up here and see how pumped and excited the kids are to have people who are in the Oiler organization come up here, it's impressive. It's a good lesson for all of us," said MacTavish.

"The one thing you want to accomplish outside of the hockey end of it is when you leave here with people feeling it was worthwhile having the Edmonton Oilers up here and I think that was accomplished."

ROBERT.TYCHKOWSKI@SUNMEDIA.CA

"THERE WAS MORE STRUCTURE THAN I'VE SEEN,

MAYBE EVER, FROM A ROOKIE CAMP."

- CRAIG MACTAVISH


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