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Sabres, NHL locals work and play

The fun is easy to spot. It's when Tim Connolly tries a between-the-legs pass to Thomas Vanek in traffic, a move a coach would instantly denounce.

It's when Jason Pominville raises his arms in mock triumph and taunts the losing team, a comeback victory so unimportant it will be forgotten seconds later.

The work is just as plain to see.

It's when Patrick Kaleta is doubled over from doing end-to-end sprints to conclude the shinny.

It's when Ryan Miller skates off the ice and responds to "how ya doin'?" with an eye roll and an answer of "wonderful," which is dripping with as much sarcasm as he is with sweat.

So when NHL players get together for a 90-minute skate in the week before training camp, what is it: fun or work?

"A little bit of both," Vanek said last week outside the Amherst Pepsi Center. "Right now it's still fun. It's not too serious, no coaches out there, but at the same time we still try to get some work done and get in shape."

Numerous Buffalo Sabres and their Western New York brethren have been skating together. It's a chance to catch up on friendships while conditioning their bodies for the start of hockey season.

The group one day last week included Sabres regulars such as Craig Rivet, Clarke MacArthur, Daniel Paille, Chris Butler and Patrick Lalime, along with Vanek, Connolly, Pominville and Miller.

Skating next to them were prospects Nathan Gerbe, Tim Kennedy and Mike Weber. Area residents Patrick Kane, Michael Peca, Martin Biron and Andrew Peters were also on the ice, getting ready for their teams or staying in shape while waiting for a club to call.

"I think it's more fun than work," said Biron, the former Sabres goaltender who was soon to depart for New York Islanders camp. "Guys are coming back into town, guys that I played with or against, guys that I've gotten to know over the last many years, so it's fun. It's just great to see all these guys back and get to talk to them for a little bit."

The pre-training camp workouts take part in any town where players congregate. The Buffalo outings are orchestrated by Jay McKee, the former Sabres defenseman and area resident who plays for the Pittsburgh Penguins. He books the ice time and e-mails his friends and former teammates, an e-mail Biron gets a kick out of seeing.

"It's so funny because of guys that are still on that e-mail," Biron said. "[Rob Ray] is still on that e-mail list, and I don't think Rayzor has put skates on for years."

Now that McKee has joined the Penguins, the job of controlling the ice time falls to Peters, who like Peca is a former Sabres forward searching for a job. Teams searching for players will not be receiving a tape of the scrimmage.

The game may not have been the best, but it's clear to see why the players are professionals. They don't need a coach to tell them they should do intense skating drills. They don't need anyone yelling at them to put in an extra lap.

They just do it. They know when the 2009-10 season opens with training camp this week -- rookies report Tuesday and the veterans Saturday -- they had better be in shape. It's these fun/work sessions that get them ready.

"I'm anxious to start," Vanek said. "Any time you come back, you just want to get going instead of waiting around and doing these skates. I'm looking forward to it."

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com

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