Penguins' trip to West Point to emphasize team-building

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The psychological wounds inflicted by the loss to Boston in the Eastern Conference final were still fresh and raw when Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik had his exit interview a few days later.

He is one of the team's most respected veteran leaders, and the stunning ejection from the chase for the Stanley Cup meant there were plenty of issues to discuss.

Nonetheless, Orpik recalls that in his meeting he mentioned to general manager Ray Shero that the team might benefit from a trip this fall to the U.S. Military Academy, something the Penguins had done before the 2006-07 and 2007-08 seasons.

"I'm not sure I thought he was even paying attention, after the way we lost, or that he really cared about that at that point, but I guess it didn't fall on deaf ears," Orpik said. "I don't know if he had that in the works, or if other guys mentioned it."

Just what role, if any, Orpik's suggestion played in management's decision to return to West Point this fall -- the Penguins are to travel there today and return Monday -- isn't clear, but Shero said having so much time between the preseason finale Wednesday in Detroit and the regular-season opener Thursday presented an obvious opportunity for a little team-building.

"That looked to be a good time to go somewhere," Shero said, adding that "we looked at different venues" before settling on a return trip to West Point.

While going there is nothing new for the franchise, it is for most of the current players. Sidney Crosby noted that only five players -- Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury, Rob Scuderi, Orpik and himself -- on the current roster were there in the fall of 2007.

The Penguins will conduct on-ice workouts today, Saturday and Sunday, and will take part in unspecified team-building and leadership-oriented events.

Although details of the plans are at least as well-guarded as most military secrets, the Penguins apparently have less-strenuous activities scheduled than those on previous visits.

Participants on past trips went through at least one physically demanding exercise, much of it conducted after nightfall on the next-to-last day of the visit, that obviously made a lasting impression.

"You're in the middle of the woods from about 6 o'clock until midnight, and you're doing everything from pushing a Humvee that had four guys in it up a hill, to running through swamps with water almost up to your necks," Orpik said.

"It actually was [fun]."

Fun? Perhaps. Draining? Absolutely.

"We were supposed to skate that last day," Orpik said. "And that wound up getting canceled because no one could get out of bed, they were so sore."

Even Crosby, whose offseason training regimen is grueling, volunteered that "it was pretty tough."

Shero clearly agreed and concluded it wouldn't be prudent to have his players exert themselves that way so close to the start of the season.

"It was a different time in training camp [on previous trips]," he said. "We had a lot more players. It was kind of in the middle of training camp, or near the beginning.

"We're down to one group of players on the ice. We won't be pushing any Hummers or anything like that.

He also noted that the players' itineraries will not be as crowded as they were in 2006 and 2007, when their days were booked almost solid.

"There will be some downtime, knowing that we're a week out from playing our first game," Shero said.

Even though Orpik was a leading proponent of returning to West Point, not all of his memories from the previous trips are pleasant.

"The first one was real fun, because I did the whole thing thinking I had a bruised hand, but actually I had a broken hand," he said.

"As soon as we got back, I had surgery."

Although some players grumbled -- privately and quietly -- about going to West Point because they would have preferred to adhere to more conventional means of preparing for the season, Orpik contends that simply spending time in a different setting is beneficial.

"If you just stay [in Pittsburgh] for three weeks ... you just get into that routine, kind of get stale with it," he said. "Anything where you change it up, do something a little different, it keeps guys' minds fresh."

More important, he believes there is a link between the time the Penguins spent at West Point in 2006 and 2007 and what transpired in the months that followed.

"I thought most of the guys really enjoyed it," Orpik said. "It's something I thought had a lot to do with the success we had later in the year."


Dave Molinari: and Twitter @MolinariPG.


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