BUFFALO — There is no definition, no straight path to the prize. Today’s sure shot can be next week’s forgotten wonder, while the long shot ultimately packs up after more than 1,000 NHL games, his name chiseled into the Stanley Cup.
A couple of dozen Bruins dreamers, ages 18-25, are here this weekend, immersed in a five-team NHL rookie challenge tournament that wraps up Monday. The chosen few, mostly determined by talent, skill, and desire, will advance to this coming week’s varsity camp in Brighton. It will be a shock if a prized prospect like, say, Fabian Lysell, goes anywhere but Warrior Arena for his next test.
Most kids, though, will be designated elsewhere, be it the minor pros, a junior team, a return to Prague or Stockholm or Berlin. It won’t be their time. It may never be their time. But they’ll still have a chance, and that‘s far better than those who’ll leave here only with a handshake, a kind slap on the back, and words of hail fellow well met.
Training camps, especially for rookies, weren’t as structured or defined 25 years ago, September 1997, when Boston’s stick-carrying, ruby-cheeked aspirants filed into Ristuccia Arena in Wilmington.
Much like the practice facility itself, things were simple in those days. During each workout, general manager Harry Sinden and his small coterie of assistants and scouts would huddle on the top row of the bleachers, jackets zippered to their chins, fending off that arena chill that carries a crueler bite in the final throes of summer than the coldest days of winter.
All the attention for a club that had finished dead last in what was a 26-team league was on No. 1 draft pick Joe Thornton and new coach Pat Burns. Thornton was the headliner, the show stolen months before the Bruins called his name on the draft floor that June.
Sergei Samsonov, the No. 8 pick in the same draft, also was high on the ones-to-watch list. Not 6-foot-4-inch, savior-of-the-franchise Jumbo Joe Thornton high, but up there nonetheless. Fast, clever, and quickly tabbed the Magical Moscovite, the 5-8 Samsonov slipped deep into the top 10 because of his lack of size — a concern all but vanished in NHL 2022 now that 5-9 firefly Johnny Gaudreau is making $9.75 million a year with Columbus.
“Size was a bit of an issue with Samsonov before we interviewed him,” Sinden said the day of the ‘97 draft. “The guy is big — he’s only short. He’s a man. When we had him in and interviewed him, the guys were really impressed with him.”
At season’s end, left winger Sergei Viktorovich Samsonov was the Calder Trophy winner as the NHL rookie of the year, posting a line of 22-25–47. Impressive, especially in a league that allowed opposing defensemen, some nearly a foot taller and 50-60 pounds heavier, to beat the borscht out of Samsonov any time he ventured near the net. He was just too fast, too tricky, too smart, just too magical.
Meanwhile, the learning curve for the ballyhooed Thornton proved longer. His skill was evident from that first day of camp, but it was equally evident that the skill rattled around in his oversized suitcase of a body. Like Samsonov, Thornton was only 18, but he needed time for frame and game to come into synch, and he needed to sharpen his focus — something that didn’t really happen until the Bruins abruptly shipped him to San Jose in November 2005.
“I’ve had a couple of talks with Joe already,” the blustery Burns said less than a week into Thornton’s first camp. “And I said to him, ‘Do you understand what it takes? Do you know what this is all about?’ ”
He got it, in time, and to his credit, for a very long time.
Thornton, who went into the weekend without a contract for the first time since September 1997, ultimately shaped himself into a Hall of Fame-caliber producer. If we indeed have seen the last of him (hand up here among those who doubt it) he will retire with 430 goals and 1,539 points. He ranks No. 6 all time for games (1,714), needing to appear in but 66 more to surpass ex-San Jose teammate Patrick Marleau for the league record (1,779).
The majority of Black-and-Gold dreamers here at the side of Lake Erie this weekend could draw greater inspiration from a pair of other camp invitees in 1997: P.J. Axelsson and Hal Gill.
Axelsson and Gill entered camp as also-rans and established NHL careers out of the gate, although Gill did play four games in AHL Providence that first season. The other three went directly into the NHL.
Axelsson arrived at age 22, having been selected No. 177 in the 1995 draft. The towering Gill, also 22, was chosen No. 207 in 1993, a throwaway pick, just weeks before beginning his freshman year at Providence College.
If you’re into betting long shots, Ryan Mast, selected No. 181 in 2021, is the pick closest to Axelsson in this camp. The 6-5 blue liner just tidied up his second season at OHL Sarnia. Gill’s closest comp is Jackson Edward, the OHL London defenseman chosen No. 200 this year.
Axelsson became a smart, ultra-competitive left winger and logged just shy of 800 games — the only one of the four 1997 campers to play his entire career with Boston. He also won an Olympic gold medal with Sweden while still a Bostonian.
Gill, credited by the great Jaromir Jagr as the toughest defender to steer around, logged 1,108 games — second to Thornton for longevity in that ‘97 group.
Gill, once the pride of Nashoba Regional High School, also was on the ice for the Penguins in Game 7 of the 2009 Cup Final vs Detroit, and remains the only one of those ‘97 WannaB’s to have played for a Cup winner. Hal Gill, pick No. 207.
Thornton, back living in the Bay Area, has yet officially to call it quits. Samsonov lives near Raleigh, N.C., and is an executive with the Hurricanes. Axelsson lives in Sweden and keeps an eye out as a Bruins scout for another Axelsson (if only) in Europe. Gill is yet another New Englander living in Nashville, where he is a member of the Predators broadcast crew.
Those four kids, rookie campers all, ranging from pick No. 1 to No. forgetaboutit, to date have posted an aggregate 4,507 NHL games and 428 in the playoffs. There is no straight path to the prize.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com.