August 11, 2014

Bruins rookie camp a chance for unheralded players to shine

Michael Doherty is a free agent who will head back to Yale this fall, but for a week this summer, he had a chance to impress the Bruins' brass during the team's development camp. (Photos/Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

By Andrew Merritt

WILMINGTON, Mass. — In the bowels of Ristuccia Memorial Arena, as sportswriters, cameramen and TV hosts swirled around the Bruins’ cramped practice locker room trying to get quotes from the 23 players invited to the team’s development camp, Billy Sweezey and Alex Globke held their own question-and-answer — with each other.

Sweezey held a bottle of post-workout protein shake in front of his mouth, asked questions that might have come out of broadcaster Jim Carr’s mouth in “Slap Shot,” then held the bottle in front of Globke to get his answers.

A few weeks earlier, Sweezey and Globke would have been unlikely friends. Sweezey is a Hanson, Mass., native who’s set to start his senior year at Noble and Greenough this fall, while the Michigan-born Globke will be a sophomore at Lake Superior State. Other than being hockey players, the only thing they had in common was being undrafted.

For five sweltering July days in Wilmington, Globke and Sweezey had something new in common: the crest on their jerseys. The local boy and Michigander were two of the seven players brought to the Bruins’ 2014 Development Camp as unsigned invitees. Each year, NHL teams complement their rookie camp rosters with a handful of players who haven’t been drafted and are thus free to work with any organization.

For players like Globke, who is unlikely to be drafted now that he’s reached his second college season, it’s a chance to make a belated impression on a club that might want his services after he graduates.

“Being a free agent, it’s pretty much just come here and prove myself a little bit, show the coaches what I have, and if they like it, we’ll see what happens,” said Globke, who scored 12 goals and 19 assists in 36 games for Lake Superior State last year. “They obviously invited us, so they’re interested in something.”

Billy Sweezey (Hanson, Mass.) got the chance to play for his hometown team during Bruins' development camp. He'll head back to Noble & Greenough in the fall.

For Sweezey and fellow undrafted local boy Michael Doherty (Reading, Mass.), there’s an extra excitement about getting to put on a Bruin jersey, even if it’s the practice model.

“It’s an absolute honor,” said Sweezey, who is expected to enroll at Yale in 2016. “I came in the first day … seeing my name on the back with the spoked-B put the biggest smile on my face. It was unbelievable, a great feeling.”

It wasn’t just a fantasy camp, though. Seven players were invited to join the 16 Bruins prospects who are already part of the organization, and the five-day camp inside the frigid climes of Ristuccia Arena was their opportunity to make an impression — and to learn.

“It’s a great chance to show what I’ve got, and learn a lot of new things, get some hints and tips on how to play better,” said Oleg Yevenko, a 23-year-old Belarussian who will be a senior at UMass this fall. “That’s probably the most important part, because I have a lot of room to grow as a person and a player.”

Yevenko certainly stood out among his fellow prospects — at 6-foot-7, 230 pounds, he was the largest player on the ice. Yet while he might cut a similar silhouette to Zdeno Chara, he knows he’s got plenty to learn before he can play on the same ice as Boston’s towering blueliner.

“Even today a couple times, playing one-on-one, two-on-one, learning to always face the puck,” he said. “You may be uncomfortable at first, but then it makes the game simpler, and makes you better as a player.”

The odds aren’t exactly great for the invited players; there’s no guarantee that the Bruins will opt to sign Yevenko, Sweezey, Globke, Doherty or fellow invitees Cole Bardreau, Kyle Baun and Simon Norberg. There aren’t a lot of success stories about unsigned free agents getting invites and then landing a prime spot after their college or junior career.

But the camp is all about potential, and it’s a second chance for players like Globke, who might not have been highly touted before college but are rounding into better players as their school days go on.

“I never expected to be in this boat, but college turned out pretty well for me,” said Globke, who also participated in the Detroit Red Wings’ camp a week before coming to Wilmington.

And perhaps that’s the biggest reason for an undrafted free agent to go back to summer camp: Where else can a player get a five-day tryout with an NHL team?

For the teams themselves, it’s also a good opportunity to take a look at players who have slipped through the cracks but could still have something in the tank down the road. The process starts with scouting, as Bruins personnel looked at potential invitees even as they traveled to colleges and junior teams to check out potential draft picks and current prospects.

“We go over the identification process as to why they’re here, with the guys that have seen them, and what they liked. And everybody else says, ‘OK, I started to see it,’ ” assistant GM Don Sweeney said. “And then, we start to see whether the areas where they’re maybe not as polished — can they improve? Will the player be willing to do some of that stuff when he’s exposed to it?”

Development camp is the place to get answers to those questions.

Ryan Donato (Scituate, Mass.) may not have been outside the spotlight like the invited free agents at Bruins Development Camp, but he too got some valuable instruction from the team's coaches.

“That’s where you start to put them up against the guys you drafted, that you think are going to be in those positions, and that’s the benefit of bringing guys in on an invite,” Sweeney said. “You get to know them as people and players, and equally as important, they get to know us. … I think it’s great from an exposure piece on both sides.”

Doherty said he talked with a Bruins scout after a midseason game at Yale, for whom he was third on the team with nine goals as a freshman. A year ago, he spent his summer working out and watching Bruins camp from his home in Reading. This summer, he got to play in a Bruins sweater.

“It’s my first camp, so I’ve probably got 30 family and friends in the stands,” he said. “You don’t want to play bad in front of them, and in front of the Bruins guys. But after the first few drills, it’s just hockey.”

There are some familiar faces in the locker room, too. Doherty’s Yale teammate, Rob O’Gara, participated in his third development camp this summer, and while they’ll be rivals in the fall, Harvard-bound Ryan Donato also brought some local familiarity to the locker room. Doherty also grew up with fellow campers Matt Grzelcyk (Charlestown, Mass./Boston University) and Ryan Fitzgerald (North Reading, Mass./Boston College), who are both veterans of the Bruins development camp experience.

“It made me feel really comfortable,” said Doherty, who got a few tips from his fellow hometown boys on what to expect: “Just the testing aspect, the on-ice stuff.”

Sweezey could still end up getting drafted next year, or even the year after. And the interest the Bruins have shown in the young defenseman certainly suggests he could be on their radar when next year’s entry draft commences in Sunrise, Fla.

For now, he’s got another year at Nobles, and some very good stories. Like Doherty, he also got to play in front of family and friends with the spoked-B on his chest. Sure enough, standing inside of the main entrance on one of the development camp days was a man wearing a sweatshirt bearing the name “Sweezey Fence” — the Sweezey family’s company, based in Whitman, Mass.

“Yup, Sweezey Fence, dad and grandfather started it back in the ’60s,” Billy said. “Still going strong. My dad has come up every day, which is nice. He can tell me how bad I’m doing, give me a nice little kick in the ass.”

And in Globke, he’s also got a new friend, and a new interview subject.

This article originally appeared in the August edition of the New England Hockey Journal. Click here to read the digital edition for free.


Twitter: @A_Merritt