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Calgary Hitmen hit the ice for first time in nearly a year

Calgary Hitmen hit the ice for first time in nearly a year
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They got the COVID results back that they hoped.

Negative across the board.

That meant gathering together for the first time in nearly a year and then taking to the ice as a team Saturday after 11 months away from the game.

Yup . . . the Calgary Hitmen are on the job again, reunited for their first day of training camp at their new home, Tsuut’ina Nation’s Seven Chiefs Sportsplex.

“A breath of fresh air,” said Hitmen forward Josh Prokop. “Everyone super excited to see each other.”

“There was a little bit of nerves out there, wondering how good of shape you’re in right now,” added fellow veteran Riley Fiddler-Schultz. “But everybody was really excited — just upbeat in the dressing room and on the ice. I think everybody’s got a positive attitude here and we’re trying to make the most of all this.”

‘All this’ is such a strange life for everybody in the Western Hockey League.

That’s especially true for the Hitmen, who’ve been displaced at the Saddledome — crowded out by the NHL’s Calgary Flames and the AHL’s Stockton Heat — and getting used to Seven Chiefs, their temporary home arena.

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They’ve also segregated themselves from the outside world by making Grey Eagle Resort their residence — where they quarantined in their own rooms for the last week — for the truncated 24-game WHL schedule ahead.

And then there’s still so many COVID restrictions in play, adding to what’s been a lot of unfamiliarity around them.

“Certainly coaching with the mask and communicating with the group was a work in progress out there (Saturday),” said Hitmen head coach Steve Hamilton of the team’s first day of training camp. “You want guys to hear you clearly and know what’s being said, so blowing the whistle and wearing a mask was a bit of a thing — on, off, on, off . . . ”

“I noticed that a few times with coach,” said Fiddler-Schultz with a chuckle. “Guys are ready to go (on a drill), and it took him a couple of extra seconds to get the whistle in his mouth.”

But when he did, says Hamilton, they hopped to it to highlight just how much this day meant to each and every one of the 22 players — pretty much the team’s roster for the season — making up the Hitmen camp.

“There was a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of jump,” Hamilton said. “A few nerves and a little bit of rust. But all in all, it was a good morning.

“Once we got going, it really is like riding a bike — it came back to the guys,” Hamilton continued. “Our expectation as a staff is to be patient — there’s going to be some rust. But the quality was really good, and I think the enthusiasm was the overwhelming part.

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That was great to see.”

Now the trick for Hamilton & Co. will be to temper that excitement and channel it into team energetic out of the gate for their opening weekend March 5 and 6 against the rival Red Deer Rebels.

“It’s going to be a consistent build towards actual puck-drop in a couple of weeks,” Hamilton said. “We need to be very wary as a staff that we’re not having these guys come so hot out of the blocks that we’re dealing with sore groins and hip flexors and those kinds of things. So we want to be building them up — building up their game readiness, cardio and battle level — all of those kind of things have been on the shelf for nearly a year.

“Slowly build it up so that the hope is in two weeks is we’re reclaiming a bit of that normal that they would expect from themselves in mid-season.”

He knows it’s not going to be without hiccups given the strangeness of the off-season.

But heck … that’s what training camp is for.

“After sitting at home and in the hotel for a couple of weeks, it was nice to get out and get around the guys and get back to doing what we love,” said Fiddler-Schultz. “I think it was a really good first day of practice. Obviously, the guys are a little tired. But that’s to be expected after not skating for so long. Overall, I think everybody looked really good.”

And everybody had a smile on their face.

“To see it all come together was very exciting,” Hamilton added. “There’s been a lot of hard work going on by a lot of people behind the scenes, and our players are super appreciative of the opportunity.”

tsaelhof@postmedia.com

http://www.twitter.com/ToddSaelhofPM

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