JASPER, ALTA. - You don’t really know a guy until you watch him wipe the sleep out of his eyes, put on one of those goofy cycling helmets and pedal his way, uphill, through the cold mountain rain for half an hour, to hockey practice.
Or play 18 holes in 7 C with a wind chill, knowing a team Ryder Cup is at stake and every mis-hit iron will punish his icy hands worse than a blocked shot punishes a foot.
So, with their most eclectic lineup in years and eight days between the end of the pre-season and the start of the regular season, the Oilers decided they’d use this time to forge relationships as well as game plans.
“We all have families, but this is our family right now,” said Ryan Smyth, a day into the club’s popular training camp retreat in Jasper. “Getting to know new faces is a big step, a big building block, and this brings everybody together and helps everyone get to know each other a little better.
“The humour comes out, you go out for dinner together. That kind of stuff builds team unity.”
This is Smyth’s second such retreat and he loves the concept.
“It gives you a chance to do different things that you don’t do during the regular season.”
Like watching elk fights.
Peckham and a few teammates saw a couple of bucks throw down Tuesday morning. No word on whether Brendan Shanahan will suspend either of the elk for instigating, but apparently it was a pretty good one.
“We were on the bikes this morning and saw these two were going at by one of the greens,” said Peckham. “I guess it’s mating season and they were going at it pretty good. They were whacking each other on the side of the head. I thought (Ryan) Jones (an avid hunter) was going to get off his bike and go after them.”
With essentially three different dynamics within the team — kids, veterans who’ve been here a while and veteran free agents who just arrived — every bit of bonding and togetherness time helps.
“It’s nice because there’s a lot of guys in here with families and other responsibilities away from the rink,” said Peckham. “This gives you a chance to get to know some of the married guys that you don’t see as much of during the season because their kids and families come first. Spending three full days together is awesome.”
“It’s been really cool so far,” said Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. “We had dinner at Bruce (Saville’s) house. A nice cabin. Biking to the rink was pretty cool. I think it really helps, especially for the new guys coming in.
“Hopefully I’m going to be spending the year together and I want to get to know them as fast as I can, so we can gel on and off the ice. I think it’s really important.”
Yet out on the Jasper Activities Centre ice, it looked like they didn’t like each other one bit. It was a fast, tough and spirited practice Tuesday, just the way everybody wants it.
“We’re closing in on the first day, opening night,” said Smyth. “It’s very crucial that we step up our game to get to that regular-season level again. I thought today was a good example of that.”