DULUTH - It's been 80 days since a professional hockey game was played anywhere in the metro area. Long enough for Jules Verne to have Phileas Fogg circumnavigate the world and plenty long enough for hockey fans to start jonesing for a fix.
It's not a full-fledged game - that's still months away - but a little taste of what's to come for the Atlanta Thrashers and their affiliates will be on display starting Friday at the Duluth IceForum.
The Thrashers annual prospect development camp begins with an on-ice session Friday at 3:30 p.m. and continues through next Thursday. The roster features 30 players, including some of Atlanta's top draft picks from the last few years and several more faces familiar to Gwinnett Gladiator fans - including the ECHL team's coach Jeff Pyle.
Pyle, along with Chicago Wolves coaches John Anderson and Todd Nelson, will be running the on-ice sessions. Pyle - who'll also be coaching the Thrashers team at the NHL's Traverse City Prospect Evaluation Tournament in September - sees the camp as a first step in figuring out which players end up where in the hockey hierarchy.
"The rookie camp and Traverse City is going to tell you a lot," Pyle said. "Guys are earning opportunities in the AHL right now. If they want any chance. There's definitely some spots to be won at those other levels, especially in Atlanta. They've got to go pretty young this year, I've got to think."
Five former Gladiators were invited to the camp, four of whom are property of the Thrashers, Gwinnett's NHL affiliate.
Guillaume Desbiens, who helped the Gladiators to the Kelly Cup finals in 2006 and played for American Hockey League Chicago last season, is back in Gwinnett. He's joined by defenseman Scott Lehman, forward Chad Painchaud and goaltender Dan Turple - all members of the Gladiators 2006-07 team.
Colton Fretter, the ECHL Rookie of the Year after a dynamite season with Gwinnett, is also attending. Fretter was under contract to AHL Chicago last season, his first as a pro after four years at Michigan State.
Other players to watch at the camp include 2006 AHL Rookie of the Year Brett Sterling, Bryan Little (the Thrashers first-round pick in 2006), goaltender Ondrej Pavelec and one of Atlanta's most recent draft selection, Spender Machacek.
The camp will stress improving the prospects' off-ice conditioning as well as advanced on-ice training. On-ice sessions are open to the public.
The Atlanta Thrashers' annual prospect development camp starts Friday and runs through Thursday at the IceForum in Duluth. All on-ice sessions are listed below and open to the public:
' Friday: 3:30-5:30 p.m.
' Saturday: 9-10:30 a.m.; 2:15-3:30 p.m.; 3:45-5 p.m.
' Sunday: 9-10:30 a.m.; 2:15-3:30 p.m.; 3:45-5 p.m.
' Monday: 4:15-7 p.m.
' Tuesday: 9-10:15 a.m.; 11 a.m.-12:15 p.m.; 3-5 p.m.
' Wednesday: 9-10:15 a.m.; 11 a.m.-12:15 p.m.; 3-5 p.m.
' Thursday: 3:45-6 p.m.