If you blinked, you might have missed the Blackhawks’ first couple of training camp practices. When the Blackhawks started doing their post-practice conditioning skating, I looked up at the clock on the wall at Fifth Third Arena, and it had been exactly 41 minutes since the start of that group’s session.
The second session was a couple of minutes shorter. While the players on the ice differed, one familiar face skated along for the conditioning drills: Luke Richardson.
We heard about Richardson’s willing participation in conditioning during the interview process and when he was hired. One of the things players who skated for him elsewhere in the NHL and AHL have raved about is his commitment to the team. And we’ve seen that early in his coaching tenure in Chicago.
Richardson skated with his guys at the end of each practice session. While he laughingly admitted that he probably wouldn’t participate in any bag skates, if and when they arise, he likes to let his guys know that they’re all in this together — himself included.
“It’s just part of a lead by example that I think — I’m not doing all the drills, so I’m not worn out like they are, and physical contact,” Richardson joked. “But I think it just shows that the coaches are with them, and we’re together in this journey, all together, doing the same thing.”
I wasn’t at last year’s camp under Jeremy Colliton, but others in the room confirmed that Richardson’s fast and efficient practices to open camp are a new thing for the Blackhawks. Colliton’s practices were long and hard-nosed, with one person describing them as practices that “beat the players into the ground before the puck ever dropped.”
I asked Max Domi what he thought of the first two days of camp on Friday afternoon, and the seven-year NHL veteran smiled ear-to-ear before giving his thoughts:
“Yeah, it’s great. Probably the most fun I’ve had at a training camp,” Domi said. “It’s not a punishment to be here, which is great. It’s a lot of fun. Everyone is feeling good about themselves, and Luke’s been outstanding.”
Domi has played in several organizations, some better than others, and under a handful of coaching staffs, and the former first-rounder said that this training camp is the best he’s experienced and one that places stock in Luke Richardson and his staff trusting their guys to report in shape and be ready to work and develop.
“It’s the best,” Domi said. “Again, you want guys to be happy to be here, right? It’s not a punishment. I think that at this point in time, everyone comes to camp in shape. There’s just an expectation that you get here in shape and ready to go, and once the puck drops, you want to be fresh and feeling good about our game and ourselves as a group.”
Patrick Kane said on Thursday that while Richardson seems intense and focused on the task at hand, Kane feels like his new head coach is building a system that will allow his players to play free and comfortable.
“[Luke] seems intense and seems pretty focused, too,” Kane said. “I think he wants to put some good systems in where we can just be able to play and not really think so much out there. so we can g o out there, play these simple systems, everyone’s on the same page, and then we can play fast and be able to make plays and have the freedom to do that as well. seems very focused.
A head coach who trusts his players to be ready and feels it more important to teach and develop than run them through the conditioning ringer and also wants to install systems that allow the player to be the best version of themselves, as opposed to being characters in his vision. It’s early, but it sure seems like Kyle Davidson has found the antithesis of Jeremy Colliton.
Isaak Phillips shared a similar sentiment to the veterans Kane and Domi when I spoke to him this afternoon, saying that they’ve “been learning a lot” and that there’s instruction rather than criticism when mistakes are made.
Jonathan Toews also gave Richardson’s calculated plan for camp his early stamp of approval on Thursday aftenoon:
“[Luke] seems like the kind of guy, the kind of leader, that you’re really going to want to play hard for,” Toews said. “You can feel he’s got that heart and soul and knowledge of the game, so it’s exciting to see that. Even (Thursday), coming off of fitness testing yesterday where guys are a little bit sore, a little tired, (it was) more of a constructive systems practice where we can all get on the same page. It’s exciting to take that first step here.”
I joked yesterday that it felt like the first day of school at Blackhawks camp. Everyone is happy and gleaming with optimism. Surely things will change to some degree when the games start, and the inevitable losing starts, but for now, it seems like the Blackhawks have found a head coach who gets it. His style and words pass the eye test for me, and his actions have garnered nothing but rave reviews from his players.