There's no telling how many Buffalo Sabres practices I've attended these last 23 years. I've watched the team work out at Sabreland, at the Aud, at private high school rinks in New England. I've seen them drill at HSBC Arena, at the Pepsi Center, on the postage-stamp sized sheet in a corridor of the West Edmonton Mall.
I'm guessing I must have witnessed in the neighborhood of 1,000 Sabres practices, from Miami to Long Island to Vancouver, which is why, years ago, I swore that if I never saw another, I'd already seen one too many.
But I couldn't stay away Tuesday morning as the Sabres opened training camp in their downtown home, breathing life back into a building too often dormant the last 17 months. And I wasn't alone. By the time the White and the Red teams emerged for the first scrimmage of camp, more than 100 hockey fans had pulled up a seat in the open house, resisting the temptations of a sun-filled September day in order to step inside and renew acquaintances with their NHL team, to welcome the sport at its highest level back into their lives.
The absence of advertising on the dasherboards was a reminder that we're starting anew following the seasonlong shutdown inspired by economic unrest. Seeing James Patrick in coaching attire also took some getting used to, made me feel for the players whose careers concluded with a schedule unplayed.
Never mind which side was to blame for a year without NHL hockey. It's lamentable to think a dedicated purist like Patrick had one final go-around squandered for, in hindsight, avoidable reasons. But I feel safe guaranteeing he'll make a wonderful addition to the staff.
Yeah, some things were different this time around. The offensive zones have expanded with the repositioning of the blue lines and the goal lines, and a no-play zone behind the nets now limits goaltender mobility. Yet signs of the familiar were manifest.
The dry erase board coach Lindy Ruff uses as a teaching aid was still alongside the Sabres bench, and players still gather around it by taking a knee or placing two hands atop a stick employed as a cane. Water bottles are still lined atop the boards like toy soldiers dutifully waiting for their owners to claim them.
What I'd never noticed about hockey practices before Tuesday, or at least never stopped to ponder, is that you can close your eyes and detect what's happening merely by processing the sounds. There's a distinct difference in the whir of blades cutting ice, depending whether a player's striding down the wing or chopping his steps to gather speed in a rush. A dull thud follows a shot that finds the midsection of a goalie pad, but not the extremities. And, of course, a shot rung off the post produces the most telltale sound of them all, eliciting heartbreak or relief once the game is on in earnest. Maybe 17 months in a hockey vacuum heightens the senses.
Signs that the NHL will change as a result of its rules overhaul were not readily apparent. The red line has been eliminated, so to speak, but home-run passes were few. Wingers, at least for now, remain committed to marking the opposing point men while on the defensive, instead of pushing them back from the blue line by slipping outside the zone and making them respect the breakaway pass.
Surely strategy will be in a state of constant revision as coaches test what works and what doesn't under rules designed to increase scoring chances. The first month of the regular season will carry more intrigue than usual as teams sort out what it all means.
What matters for now is that the Sabres are back, that we won't have to endure another hockeyless winter. Training camp is under way, the sights and sounds more comforting than I'd ever imagined.