Monday, October 13, 2008

NHL Season Begins, And A Dream Is Delayed

by Chris Nelson and Gemma Hooley

Defensive prospect Karl Alzner on the Washington Capitals bench during a rookie scrimmage.

Defensive prospect Karl Alzner sits on the Washington Capitals bench during a rookie scrimmage against the Philadelphia Flyers last month. Chris Nelson/NPR

As the pro-hockey season begins, many rookies face a moment of truth: Have they made the cut for the National Hockey League, or will they be sent down to the development league? For one rookie, the answer comes after months of work.

At 11:11 each morning and 11:11 each night, Karl Alzner makes a good-luck wish. He also carries a fake mustache that once belonged to the rapper Snoop Dogg as a good-luck charm.

But for all the superstitions he brings to training camp, Alzner's luck is the kind that only comes with hard work.

A New Training Regimen

A prodigy at 15 in the Canadian junior league, Alzner was drafted by the Washington Capitals last season. Now 20, he's looking to compete at the NHL level.

"Lots of guys, not only they're strong in the gym, but they've got what I like to call 'man strength,' because their full body is strong," Alzner said.

"They can just anchor themselves into the ice, and if you aren't strong enough to push them over, then you just have to wait for them to turn around."

To get himself strong enough, Alzner set some ambitious training goals this summer.

"I tried sprinting for the first time in a year — I don't usually sprint all that often, I just jog. But I tried sprinting with parachutes and bungee cords and weighted vests on all at once," said Alzner, who is listed at 6'2" and 210 pounds.

The work came with a price, he said: "I tweaked my hip flexor, both my groins, my hamstrings."

These tweaks, as Alzner calls them, were soon lost in the general pain of training camp. Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau drilled his rookies until some of them lay spread-eagle on the ice at the end of practice. Alzner vowed to stay upright.

"If I'm tired, I like to hide it," he said.

"I don't like to bend over. I don't like to, if I don't have to, go down on one knee. I never usually like to show any sort of weakness."

The Stakes At Training Camp

Brooks Laich, a four-year veteran with the Caps, said, Alzner "is very smooth. In young guys, one of the big things they look for is poise. It's called poise.

"It means they have ice running through their veins. That kind of thing. And Karl, out on the ice, is very calm. And I think he'll get a long look this year, as far as making the team — and hopefully he does well for us in the future."

Laich said that training camp is not just a proving ground for rookies like Alzner; veterans must also prove their worth.

"I was just signed this summer to a new three-year contract," Laich said. "So I want to come in and prove that management hasn't made a mistake. Now I'm battling to try and improve my position on the team, whereas before I was just battling to get on the team. So there's a lot of things going on in camp."

Training camp always ends with tough decisions for coaches. On Monday, the last day of camp, Alzner played pingpong as he waited for news of his status. It was disappointing. He learned that he won't be starting in the NHL this week.

But he was told to expect to be called up for Caps games during the season.

Going To Pennsylvania

For now, Azner will develop his skills with the AHL Hershey Bears. Alzner, who is from British Columbia, had 24 hours to get himself to Pennsylvania and find a place to live.

The move means that everything's changing for Alzner — everything, he said, except the goal he wrote down as a kid and tacked to his bedroom wall.

"It's just a regular 8-by-11 piece of paper," he said. "Blue paper, black Sharpie."

The sign reads, "I will make the NHL."

And, Alzner noted, "'Will' is underlined two or three times — that's my favorite."

Wednesday night, he made his Hershey Bears debut in the team's season opener in Wilkes-Barre. Laich and the Caps start their season Friday.

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