We hope you will enjoy the following look at an NHL training camp as seen through the eyes of rookie centerman Stephen Weiss. Weiss, 18, a native of Toronto, Ontario, played in 62 games last season with the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) scoring 40 goals and 47 assists (87 points). He was the Panthers’ first selection and fourth overall in this year’s entry draft held at National Car Rental Center.
Week One / Part One:
I’d like to start out by saying hello to my family and friends that I know are going to be reading this on the Panthers’ website. I’m doing great here in Hull and looking forward to rookie training camp. I’m rooming with Niklas Hagman. He was drafted in ’99 with the Panthers and played in Finland last year. He speaks English well so there’s no problem communicating. He’s a good guy and all the other guys seem like good guys too.
How was your off-season?
I had a good summer. I had a chance to train hard. We had the rookie camp in Thunder Bay with the Panthers. That went real well. I got to meet some of the guys and that was a neat experience. The summers start to fly by once you get older. It was good to get some training in and put on some weight, which was good for me. And it was nice to spend time with my family.
How do you feel physically coming into this camp? What’s your mindset?
I feel real good right now. I put on a lot of weight, feel strong, and I’m looking forward to getting camp started. Even just last year compared to where I am now it’s totally different. I was just 170 pounds at this time last year and now I’m well over 180. So, I feel real good and I’m a lot stronger. I think you just get a lot stronger with age. I’m starting to fill out a little bit more so I feel real good about myself.
I want to play as well as I can, obviously, and give a good impression to the management and the coaches. And I want to do the same thing once I go to the main camp. I’m just looking to play well and have some fun while I’m here.
Is there any pressure from being the Panthers first pick in this year’s draft?
I think when you’re a team’s first pick, or when you’re picked real high there is some added pressure. But I try not to look at it that way. I just want to play my game and play hard and if I do that I should be okay. If I don’t play well then obviously I’ll be a little upset, but I feel good right now.
Are you thinking about trying to make the team or are you just focusing on one day at a time?
I’m just taking it one step at a time. I want to play well. I want to go to the main camp and want to play well there to try to make the team. For me it starts at this camp, and I want to impress some people. My goal is to try to make the Florida team this year and that’s what I want to do.
Is it weird for you to be playing in juniors just last year and now at age 18 trying to play on the same team as Pavel Bure and all of the other Panthers?
It’s really weird. It seems like just yesterday that I was 16 and leaving home to go play juniors. Now I’m playing to go to the NHL main camp and play with all those guys. It’s weird but you’ve got to put that stuff aside and go out there and play.
So that doesn’t intimidate you at all?
Well, not right now it doesn’t. It might be different next week. But even when I do get there I’m just trying to put that aside and just play hockey. If I make the team, that would be great. If I don’t, I won’t have any regrets. I know that I’ll do everything I can to stay with Florida.
Would going back to juniors be a major disappointment for you this year?
I’m only 18 years old and I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself to try to make the team this year, but I think there is a shot. I’m going to give it my best and if it doesn’t work out I’m not going to sulk about it. I’ll go back to junior, work hard, and then try to make it next year. That’s all you can really do once a decision is made either way.
Has your family been a big factor in your success so far?
They’ve been the biggest part of everything I’ve achieved so far. Especially when I was younger, they were the ones driving me around and paying for everything. If it weren’t for them I wouldn’t have even got started in the game. Being drafted so high and getting the chance to make the team has been a big thrill for them too, not just me. So, I definitely want to make the team for them. I’m sure they’d rather be sitting in a 20,000-seat arena in Florida this year instead of some of the smaller ones in the juniors.
What do you think the coaching staff and scouts are looking for in your play here at rookie camp?
I think they drafted me because they want me to put some points on the board and be a creative centerman. And that’s my game, scoring goals and using my wingers as much as possible and playing solid defensively. They didn’t have a lot of scoring depth last year and that’s what I’m going to try to do is help out in that way. They want to make it as comfortable for me as possible. They’ve told me before that when I come to camp to play my own style and that I’ll be fine, so that’s what I’m going to do. So, overall I’m really looking forward to the entire experience.
How have things been going over the last few days for you?
Things have been going pretty well. Obviously, we’ve had two losses in two games which isn’t great, but we’re starting to play a lot better. I thought we should have won the game against Montreal, but… For me, it’s just getting my rest and eating well and trying to stay healthy. Because of the games it’s a pretty tight schedule so we haven’t been doing too much, just going out to eat with the guys and kind of hanging out at the hotel.
Have your game days in camp been much different than those in Juniors?
No, it’s pretty much the same. The systems are a little different than what you have in junior. There are more NHL systems and NHL pace and you gotta get used to that a bit. Those are the biggest things. Other than that, it’s still hockey and you just have to go out and play hard.
Talk about your linemates a bit.
There’s been a few changes in the first two games, but against Montreal I played with Niklas Hagman and Greg Watson . I thought we played real well. We didn’t get any goals or anything like that, but we had a few good chances. You know when you get to this level anybody you play with is a great player. I’m just happy to be here and to play with anybody is great.
What was the mood on the bench against Montreal? In the third period the team really dominated with 17 shots in the period, but just couldn’t tie it up.
Yeah, we wanted to get one really bad and tie it up and get the win, but it just wasn’t coming. Everyone was pretty anxious and wanted to get on the ice, but it just didn’t come. Those are the kind of things though that you build on and learn from. Hopefully we can bounce back in the last couple games of the tournament.
What are your thoughts about the last couple days of the tournament for you personally?
For me, I think I started off a little slow against Ottawa in the first game. I didn’t feel like I had the legs, and all the excuses… But tonight (against Montreal) was a lot better. The team played a lot better. I really thought we deserved a better fate and I thought I played a lot better myself. For tomorrow, I think we’ve got to play the same way. Now we just have to win the next one and move
How have things gone since the end of Rookie Camp?
Good. We had three days off so we were just kind of hanging around the hotel and not doing too much. We skated yesterday for the first time and it was good to be on the ice with all the vets. It was a pretty good pace and then today we added a few off-ice workouts.
What were some or your feelings or thoughts when you stepped on the ice with the veterans for the main camp?
It was great. You know, these are the guys you watch on TV and to be on the same team and in the same room with them is just awesome. It’s a dream come true for me and I’m still just so happy to be here. Once you get on the ice though, it’s all business and you have to do what you have to do to try and stick around and make the club. I’m just trying to do the things that got me here.
Are there any particular guys that you have been hanging out with during camp?
Not really… My roommate here is Serge Payer so we hang out a lot in the room. There’s not a lot of spare time so you go to the mall… Really, they’re all great guys and fun to hang out with.
Has anyone in particular impressed you on the ice since you got here?
(laughs) Yeah, pretty much everybody. Once you get to this level, everyone is a good player. I haven’t seen Pavel yet so I’m going to go watch that session now. I’m like a kid in a candy store watching some of these guys.
Have any of the veterans given you any good advice yet?
Yeah, they all have. When you are on the ice and you do something “wrong” they’ll give you tips on what you can do or how to shoot the puck quicker. They’ve all been great.
Have you had a chance to speak with the coaches much?
Not yet, once camp started, it’s kind of like business. They have practices to run and then we have off-ice workouts to do. There’s not too much conversation. They just say “continue to work hard” and there’s always guys watching.
Take us through the last few days…
They’ve gone pretty good. We practice in the mornings and on Saturday, we had our first scrimmage. I was pretty happy with how it went. I thought I played well and I was fortunate to get a goal. Other than that, I’ve been concentrating on practicing and working out. In our spare time, we’ve been going out to eat a lot and hanging around the hotel.
Did the scrimmage turn out to be what you expected?
Yeah, it was pretty high tempo and pretty physical as well. A lot of guys were competing for jobs against each other so it was a pretty good game.
We’ve got four games in four nights coming up… Do you know yet which ones you’re playing and is there any one in particular that you’d like to play in?
I don’t know about all of them yet but I know I’m playing (Tuesday) against Carolina which I’m looking forward to. I know a lot of guys on Carolina’s team – some I played with on my junior team. That should be kind of fun. I hope I can play in all if them. It’s more of an opportunity to show what you can do and make an impression so hopefully, I can play a lot and play well.
You played four games in four nights at Rookie Camp – was fatigue a factor in the last couple?
I don’t think so… Maybe a little in Hull because we hadn’t skated in a while and it’s tough to get the game legs back. We’ve been going pretty hard here so we should be in pretty good shape. I don’t think fatigue will be too much of a factor hopefully but with the travel… It’s just stuff you have to battle through though.
Do you think you’ll feel more comfortable in these exhibition games than you did in Hull now that you’ve been skating with these guys for a while?
Yeah, I think so. In practice I feel pretty comfortable and I felt really good in the intra-squad game. You just have to get used to the pace and once you get to know the guys, everything is a lot easier. I’m looking forward to these games…
In a recent newspaper article, your mom expressed concern about the possibility of you being on your own this season. Have you thought about where you would live?
Not really… I’d probably live with another family – go the “billet” route for another year. That would give me the opportunity to learn to do things on my own. I don’t think I’d get a place by myself yet since I don’t really know how to do much (laughs).
Who did you live with in Juniors?
The Alberti family… They’re Italian and have three kids. I’ve lived with them the last two years. They’re really nice people.
Was it difficult moving away from home at just sixteen years of age?
Yeah – it was tough, but after a few weeks, I got settled in and got to know the people. It’s actually pretty fun being on your own so I’ve had a good time.
Would you say you phoned home more at sixteen in Juniors or now that you’re trying out for the NHL?
It’s actually been pretty consistent… I try to call home at least once a day and let my parents know what’s going on. I think the first week (when I was 16), I was on the phone with them all day – it was pretty tough.
You have one brother… How old is he?
Yeah – he’s 15. He plays hockey. I call home as much as possible but since he plays too, he’s usually out or at school. When I do get a chance to talk to him, we have really good conversations.
On draft day, he seemed to be sharing in your excitement…
Yeah – it was a big day for my whole family. It wasn’t just a dream come true for me, they put a lot of time in too. It’s tough for (him) to have his big brother away sometimes.
What’s a typical day (during the hockey season) like for you?
The last couple years, I would go to school in the morning and then go to practice. I’d work out or ride the bike after practice and then go home to do homework and eat. It’s a pretty tight schedule in Juniors. If I’m able to make this team, it’ll become a lot of games and traveling on top of practices so I’ll have to get used to that.
If you don’t make the Panthers and go back to Juniors, does that mean you’ll go back to school as well?
I think I’ll do a couple correspondence courses on the computer. Since school’s already started, I’d be late registering so that’s the best option.
So did you graduate Canadian high school?
No – American high school.
Do you have time for hobbies or is that strictly for the off-season?
I play golf in the off-season but during the season there’s really only time for hockey.
How’s your golf game?
It’s pretty good… That’s the nice thing about Florida – you can golf all year ’round.
Do you have any favorite movies?
I really like comedies. I don’t think I have a favorite though. Anything with a good plot or storyline…
What were some of the best ones you’ve seen recently?
American Pie 2 was awesome – I saw it three times!
What about music?
Rock I guess. That’s the kind of stuff we listen to before the game to get pumped up.
If you sign an NHL contract this year or next, what do you think your first purchase will be?
(laughs) I don’t know… Probably a car. That seems to be the standard thing that everybody gets. I haven’t really given it too much thought yet.
When you have a chance to watch television, is it MTV or ESPN?
Both… At my billet’s place (in Juniors) they had like 300 movie channels so that was always on too.
Have the recent tragic events in the US affected you or dampened your camp at all?
My dad was in Boston at the time… I woke up and turned on the TV and there was so much going on. I remembered he was in Boston and kind of freaked out. I was trying to get a hold of him and he wasn’t answering his phone. I finally talked to him but it was a real scary afternoon.
The other night (before the Carolina game), they had a tribute on the Jumbotron and I thought of my dad. I think it has affected everyone. Then, you get on the ice for 2 ½ hours and you have to put it behind you. When you are watching something like that though, it’s tough.
What’s it like for a Canadian guy to watch that and to hear the American anthem? Is it any different being from a foreign country?
No, I don’t think it matters. That could have been any country around the world. You just feel for the people who lost family and friends because of it. It could easily have been Canada. When it happens, you don’t think about anything but the people.
On the ice, how would you say the last week went for you?
Pretty good. I thought I played well against Carolina and then I had a night off against Dallas. It was a tough one tonight (Boston) though. I don’t think we got what we wanted win-wise but I think everyone’s getting better, myself too, and we’re getting better adjusted.
What would you say you have done the best so far and what would you say you’ve struggled with?
I think defensively I’ve played real well and I’ve been pretty responsible in my own end. Offensively, I’ve been struggling a bit. It’s a little bit of a different game in Juniors so that’s one thing I’ve had to get used to… How to find space and make the most of my chances offensively.
What are your overall recollections of camp now that it is over?
Well, it’s been a big learning experience for me… It started in Hull, which was good to get my feet wet a little bit. This past month, it was a good learning experience and a chance to get to know the guys. I thought I played pretty well but I needed to get used to the NHL game. The biggest thing was to learn as much as possible.
Was it a good step to go to the Prospects Camp first – like you said to get your feet wet a little?
I think so. We played with some pretty high-caliber players there and then it’s even more of a jump when you get to main camp. It was very good for me but it’s a lot harder here.
Was it hard playing with guys so much older than you? Some guys are twice your age…
It’s a little different but when I was 16, I was playing with guys who were 21. When guys are twice your age, it’s a little tougher but it’s also fun at the same time. It’s neat being the youngest guy because you can learn a lot from those guys who have been in the League for ten years.
It seems like you are more comfortable with the guys now… I see you joking around with some of the veterans…
Yeah, these guys are all great – it doesn’t take long to get to know them. They try to take care of the younger guys. I was fortunate enough to have dinner at Kevyn Adams’ house last night and got to meet his wife and daughter. It was great for me but like I said, all the guys have been great.
You mentioned that you’ve learned a lot in camp. What do you think is the best way to learn more about the NHL?
For me, it’s a lot of everything. I’m kind of a quiet kid so I like to sit back and watch how other guys do things on the ice and off. The games are learning experiences in themselves.
Is it a major disappointment for you not making the team?
Yeah, it is because my goal was to make the team but if it’s not in the team’s plans for me this year, then that’s fine too. I’ll go back to Junior, work harder and hopefully be here next year.
When friends and family back home have asked you how it’s going, what do you tell them?
I laugh and say it’s all surreal… I mean, I’m playing on the same ice as Pavel Bure – it still hasn’t sunk in yet. I’ve just said it’s gone well and I’m having fun.
Are you more confident about your future now?
Yeah, I think so. I think I’ve done real well at my first camp. I haven’t gotten thrown around or anything like that and I’ve competed pretty hard. I’ll only get bigger, stronger and better. If not this year, then definitely next year!
Was there anything that you thought was harder to handle than you expected?
I think just the games are a lot tougher. There’s not a lot of room to do what you’re used to doing out there. I think I’ve adjusted well…
Getting to know the guys was easier. They’re older and have families so they welcome you to the team more. It’s just easier to feel at home.
Does it seem like yesterday or years ago that you got drafted?
It does seem like a while ago now. We’ve been at camp for a month now – I’m looking forward to getting the season started. It still was the most special day in my life and I remember it real well.
(The interview is courtesy of the Florida Panthers and was conducted by the Panthers PR man Randy Sieminski. The content might be a little outdated now with training camp already over, but it is a great interview and deserves to be seen by our readers outside of Florida)