First Day Back at St. Pete Times Forum Marked by Welcomed Changes
Shortly after arriving in Tampa Bay, Simon Gagne likened his membership with the Tampa Bay Lightning to starting over. In a way, along with many of his teammates, he was.
Following a successful road trip to open the preseason in which Gagne helped his team earn five points in four games, the left wing, joined by 27 others, arrived at the St. Pete Times Forum Tuesday morning to find a series of welcomed changes signifying a new beginning, not only for him, but for the franchise as well.
Prior to holding the squad’s first collective team practice on the new sheet of ice inside the St. Pete Times Forum, players stood in awe within the locker room hallways admiring photos of the team’s 2004 Stanley Cup run. They walked through open spaces where walls had previously stood and started to believe in a winning culture again as they read motivational phrases painted on the walls. As Head Coach Guy Boucher expressed his positive sentiments towards the end result of the summer renovation project within the locker room, he was hopeful that same aura of winning off the ice would translate to the playing surface as well.
“I have a vision in my mind of how I things want to end,” Boucher said. “I believe everything comes into play when you transmit something, whether it be pictures, images, writings on the wall, or attitudes. The guys need to understand what is in the coaches’ minds. There’s an end product there and my job is to give them as many tools as possible to figure out that vision and put it into practice.”
Perhaps the team already started, albeit quite literally, as the players and coaching staff held its first practice on the new ice sheet, which was laid down following the completion of a new rink system that included new dasher boards as well as glass panels. Despite Tuesday being day one back on the job, the renovations were quickly noticed and equally as appreciated by the players, as their feelings echoed their gratitude to owner Jeff Vinik, who spearheaded the list of changes in an effort to make the Lightning a world-class organization.
“Everything looks great,” forward Ryan Malone said. “This is how it should be, and I feel like the entire coaching staff and new ownership group did a very good job of getting the point across of what this hockey team is all about. I think all of this is what it takes to get us to where we want to go.”
Players took the ice for the first time as a collective group on Tuesday as they familiarized themselves with Boucher’s innovative 1-3-1 system, which emphasizes a “first-to-the-puck” mentality based on speed. The style of play is far different than what most of the players comprising the current Lightning roster are used to, and is even potentially revolutionary judging by the success it sustained last season within the junior ranks and even at the American Hockey League level.
“The practice today was definitely hi-tempo,” forward Sean Bergenheim said. “It’s going to be that way all season. There are still some things we are not used to with Guy’s style of play, but I think we all are adapting well. I’m confident we are all going to get better at it.”
Many of the drills run at practice featured the first forechecker attempting to angle off the puck carrier, with the three middle forecheckers lined up behind and one defenseman supporting the back end of the ice. In the defensive zone, it is common to see both defensemen in the corner along with a forward to swarm the puck while an additional forward drops down to guard the front of the net. This specific type of aggressive play, although exciting to learn, is a radical change for most players.
“It’s definitely unlike anything you’re used to,” left wing Ryan Malone said. “It went well for being the first day, but there’s not a whole lot of time to rest out there.”
Despite the pace of the first practice being characterized as intense, Malone echoed the same sentiments as the rest of his teammates, knowing that the hard work put in now prior to the start of the season will ultimately help the team achieve its goal of winning a Stanley Cup, not just this season, but for years to come as well.
“Guy expects all of us to be very sharp from the first second of practice right until the very end. If one guy falls behind a little bit, we’re all going with him,” Malone added. “It’s good though. I think he just wants us all to be sharp and ready by the time the season starts.”
For Gagne, Malone and others, perhaps it’s not as much an issue of starting over in September as it is finishing in the middle of June.