Neil's Notebook: Pro Camp Adds More Spartan Bonding Moments
Aug 21, 2013
WATCH: Pro Camp Highlights
By Neil Koepke, MSU Spartans.com staff writer
EAST LANSING - Mike Weaver is a veteran NHL defenseman who's known for his strength and positioning. His forte is defending - playing well in his own zone and keeping the puck out of his team's net.
Torey Krug is an emerging NHL defenseman who made a splash last spring with his skating and offensive talents for the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The former Spartans have different styles but still have a lot in common.
Both are small by NHL standards - Weaver is 5-foot-8 and 180 pounds and Krug is 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds. And both grew up having fun playing the game at every level but not necessarily expecting to earn a college scholarship, much less make it to the NHL.
But by playing to their strengths and with a lot of heart and dedication, they overcame size limitations and found a way to excel at the junior and college levels and took advantage of opportunities to have success at the pro level.
This week, at Michigan State's annual Pro Camp at Munn Arena, Weaver, 35, and Krug, 22, have similar goals: Push themselves in a competitive setting against a skilled group of pros to prepare themselves for the start of NHL training camps which open in about three weeks.
Weaver, a Spartan standout from 1996-2000, is beginning his 14th season as a pro and third with the Florida Panthers. Krug, a two-time captain who played at MSU from 2009-12, enters his second season as a pro and is striving to earn a regular spot on the Bruins blue line.
"This is a great opportunity to get a push going into training camp,'' said Weaver, who flew in from his home in Boca Raton, Fla., late Sunday and arrived in East Lansing around 1:30 a.m. on Monday "You're on the ice for an hour of high-tempo drills and then you scrimmage for an hour.''
The camp, which features about 24 players including a few Detroit Red Wings besides Drew Miller and Justin Abdelkader, is run by longtime MSU assistant coach Tom Newton. The camp started in 1997 to give the Spartans' NHL players a chance to come back to campus and get ready for training camp with a week of organized practices.
It's been an August staple at Munn Arena ever since.
The sessions run from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. on Wednesday and Friday and from 9 a.m.-11 a.m. on Thursday. The practices are open to the public.
"You don't get this at a lot of universities - a school holding a pro camp for its alumni,'' Weaver said. "It's really great. I look forward to it every year. Tom Newton does a great job putting together drills that challenge us and help us get ready.
"For me, it's about getting on the ice with quality players that will make me skate hard, and have drills run by coaches. You don't get that much in the summer when you get together and skate and scrimmage.''
Other former Spartans attending the camp and current team:
Shawn Horcoff (Dallas Stars, NHL), Jim Slater (Winnipeg Jets, NHL), Drew Miller (Red Wings, NHL), Justin Abdelkader (Red Wings, NHL), Corey Potter (Edmonton Oilers, NHL), Jeff Petry (Edmonton Oilers, NHL), Chris Mueller (Dallas Stars, NHL), Jared Nightingale (Rockford Icehogs, AHL), Bryan Lerg (Lake Erie Monsters, AHL), Dustin Gazley (Hershey Bears, AHL), Andrew Rowe (Hartford Wolf Pack, AHL), Mike Merrifield (Florida Everblades, ECHL), Chris Forfar (Evansville Icemen, ECHL) and Kevin Walrod (Fort Wayne Komets, ECHL).
In addition, Red Wings forward Dan Cleary, Detroit defenseman Jakub Kindl are participating in the camp, along with former Red Wing forward Valtteri Filppula, now a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
A year ago, Krug attended his first MSU Pro Camp in preparation for his first pro season in the Bruins organization. He played in 63 games with the Providence Bruins, Boston's farm team in the American Hockey League, and had 13 goals and 32 assists for 45 points.
In March, he got called up to the Bruins for one game, but was sent back to Providence where he expected to finish the season.
But a rash of injuries on the blue line during the first round of the playoffs forced the Bruins to call up defensemen Matt Bartkowski and Krug from Providence. Krug found his way into the lineup and never left.
He had four goals and two assists in 15 games and won rave reviews from his coaches, teammate and the local and national media as the Bruins went all the way to the Stanley Cup Final before losing to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games.
"I could have never dreamed that any of that would happen. It was definitely a fun year,'' Krug said. "It builds a lot of confidence.
"For me to go into that locker room like that and get that chance, it's a credit to that organization for helping me develop as a player. Now, I need to continue to develop. There are so many things to work on. I realize that after one year I haven't completed the goal I want.''
For sure, Krug wants to earn a spot for his first full regular season in the NHL, and continue to do his thing on offense while being responsible defensively.
"Last year (at the pro camp), I never knew what to expect, but coming in here and witnessing the work ethic of guys like Shawn Horcoff, Jimmy Slater and Mike Weaver, it just opens your eyes,'' Krug said.
"There's not one guy in the locker room here that doesn't have an unbelievable work ethic. I want to make sure my fitness level is where I need it to be going into training camp.
"This helps get the cobwebs out with your passing and timing when you're moving up and down the ice. You don't skate too much in the summer so you want to get your skating muscles back into shape.''
Krug, who grew up in Livonia, said he got know Weaver early in his career at MSU and has received a lot of advice from the veteran NHL defenseman who's also played in the NHL with Atlanta, Los Angeles, Vancouver and St. Louis.
And like Krug, Weaver went undrafted and signed as a free agent, with Atlanta in 2000.
"Going into my sophomore year, Mike was on the ice with us during captains' practices before the season and I was always picking his brain about how to defend certain guys,'' Krug said. "He's a great guy to learn from.
"He established himself in the league and he keeps earning contracts. And he was in the NHL before the league changed the rules and put more emphasis on skill. Players had to adjust - he did, and continued to be a solid defenseman.
"I'm a different style defenseman, but I have to make sure I take care of things defensively and be ready to go on offense.''
Weaver said he told Krug to play his game, do what he does best and not try to do too much. He also told him to "enjoy the journey" of getting to the NHL.
"I just told him that he had to play within himself and try not to force things,'' Weaver said. "I saw him move the puck very well in the playoffs. He took chances when he could but not every time.
"It was great to see him get a chance like that. It's exciting for young players.''
Weaver, who's from the Toronto area, credits his longevity to understanding his role and working hard to maintain his defensive skills.
"I figured out what type of player I was and played that role. I'm a defensive player so I don't try to score goals,'' he said. "Guys who get called up or are first-year pros, they think they have to score and be a flashy player.
"You need to make the plays that are expected. There's only a select few who are able to do it all. Playing in the NHL isn't just about skill. It's more about being responsible.''
Weaver and the Panthers will face Krug and the Bruins five times this season - at Florida on Oct. 17 and March 9 and at Boston Nov. 7, Jan. 28 and March 4.
"To be able to spend 13 years in one organization is something I've proud of. But at this point in my career, I need a fresh start and I'm excited about the challenge,'' said Horcoff, 34, a high-scoring Spartan from 1996-2000.
"With my contract, I had some options (as to where I was traded) and Dallas pushed hard from the start. I'd never had these options so I owed it to my family to see it through.''
The Stars went through a major management change as former Red Wings assistant general manager Jim Nill took over as GM and hired Lindy Ruff as coach. Nill went after Horcoff for his experience, leadership and skills at center.
"I'm not going to change what I do or bring to an organization but this may be a chance for me to take on a bigger role,'' Horcoff said on Tuesday at MSU's Pro Camp at Munn Arena. "I know Jim Nill from the World Championships and I played for coach Ruff (for Canada) in the World Championships.''
Horcoff has already sold their home in Edmonton and bought a house in Dallas.
"I know a lot of the players in Dallas, I know the owner and the city is fantastic. The fans are good. You just have to win and they'll pack the building,'' he said.
Horcoff's most memorable season with the Oilers came in 2005-2006. He had 22 goals and 51 assists for a career-best 73 points and came within one game of winning the Stanley Cup. But the Oilers lost to the Carolina Hurricanes in the Cup final, 4 games to 3. In 24 playoff games, Horcoff had seven goals and 19 points.
Horcoff has been coming to the Pro Camp almost every year since he graduated from MSU in 2000.
"I was one of the first ones as the camp started. It's a big step in getting ready for training camp,'' said Horcoff, who's from Trail, British Columbia, and now makes his offseason home in the Detroit suburb of Birmingham.
"You get to compete against a bunch of good pros and you can do full-ice drills. With training camp a little shorter this year because of the Olympic break, this really helps.
"I train in the morning, then drive up and skate and practice. It's nice to see all the guys that come back and to get to know the younger players just starting out.''
But he never dreamed that he would end up playing for the team he grew up watching -- the Detroit Red Wings.
Miller, who grew up in East Lansing and played for the Spartans from 2003-06, is set for his eighth season as a pro and fourth with the Red Wings.
"My goal was always to play in the NHL but I never thought it would be in Detroit. They bring in so many good players and veterans,'' said Miller, 29, who got his name on the Stanley Cup with the Anaheim Ducks in 2006-07, his first as a pro.
"It's been an exciting career so far - juniors, college and pro. It's definitely been a great experience.''
Miller led the Spartans in scoring as a junior with 18 goals and 43 points, but it's been his role as a standout penalty killer and effective defensive forward that's kept him in Detroit.
"In today's game, specialty teams are so important. I've found a way to fill a role where I kill penalties and am counted on defensively and to chip in offensively,'' said the former MSU captain.
"I'd love to be more offensive and score more goals, but I'm happy with my role and take pride in what I do. Little things like blocking shots, getting the puck out quickly and killing penalties might not seem very flashy, but that's how you earn a job.''
Miller reports to Red Wings training camp in Traverse City on Sept. 11.
In order to be better prepared, Miller makes the MSU Pro Camp part of his summer training plan.
"I count on this week and coordinate to have my skating up to a point where I'm feeling good coming into this camp,'' he said. "It's good for my development for the summer, and it's a great opportunity to come back and see all the guys.
"You can't really catch up during the season. When you see some of the guys (at various NHL stops), it's usually only for five or 10 minutes and then you or they're taking off. Here, you have time to visit.''
Winnipeg's not very glitzy, and it's very, very cold in the winter, but the fans love their team and the atmosphere at Jets games is among the best in the league.
"Winnipeg is a great hockey market. Our support is great and we have a big home ice advantage,'' said Slater, 30, starting his ninth season in the NHL and third in Winnipeg, after the franchise moved to Manitoba from Atlanta.
"Last year we got a taste of a good playoff run and fell short. This year, the fans will expect more and we want to give them more.''
Slater, who grew up in Lapeer, has established himself as an effective fourth-line center and fan favorite in Winnipeg. He played his first five seasons in the NHL with the Atlanta Thrashers.
But fan support was lacking in Atlanta and the owners sold the franchise to a group from Winnipeg.
"Atlanta was a good place for me to start my career in the NHL,'' said Slater, a Spartan from 2001-2005. "I enjoyed the city and fans. But Winnipeg is whole new experience. I've really enjoyed the first two years.
"I'm one of the older guys on the team. We've got a corps of good players who have been signed to long-term deals. The next few years should be fun.''