WEST POINT, N.Y. -- As a first-timer, Darryl Sydor had mixed feelings going into the Penguins' team-building and exercise program at the United States Military Academy.
"I was worried from the stories they had last year," the defenseman said after practice yesterday as the Penguins got ready to head back to Pittsburgh. "From what I was told, they had it really tough last year. But they succeeded."
At the same time, Sydor, who signed with the Penguins in July, was interested in the history and meaning of West Point after becoming a U.S. citizen last year.
"Obviously, being from Canada, you don't study it," he said. "I don't know how many times I thanked [the Army personnel] for what they do."
Sydor came away from the three-day training camp side trip more than satisfied.
"Fun, a little bit difficult, but you had to work as a team, you had to come together as a team," he said.
Even for those who were here a year ago, the first time the club made the trip, it was not overly repetitive.
"I thought it was real good because they mixed it up," defenseman Rob Scuderi said.
After arriving late Sunday afternoon, there was a team dinner and time to rest before things really got going under the supervision of J.B. Spisso, first sergeant of the New York Army National Guard and founder and CEO of Elite Leadership Training.
Monday, there was an off-ice workout, practice and lunch with the cadets. And that wasn't the half of it.
In the afternoon, everyone was divided into four-man groups for a warrior hunt. Each group got one pen and a sheet of paper with a map of the campus on one side and 15 questions on the other, such as the name of the football stadium (Michie) or details of inscriptions on statues. There was a 75-minute time limit to find the answers.
After a team dinner, there was a tour of military transport C-5 and C-130 jets.
Tuesday started with a climb to glory, a trek up a mountain with players carrying packs weighing between 30 and 90 pounds. They were rewarded at the top with sweeping views of the lower Hudson Valley and a history lesson of the area and the academy.
After practice and lunch came one encore from last year -- paintball. After dinner, Spisso led a discussion about leadership.
By the end of practice yesterday morning, the players were tired but not complaining.
"It was wicked," said winger Erik Christensen, a first-timer who was cut one day before the trip last year. "My body's a little sore, a little tired. You're always going. We had virtually no down time to relax or anything. Part of the concept was to be together all the time and do lots of activities together."
The consensus seemed to be that it was objective accomplished.
"I think it brings the team together," winger Jarkko Ruutu said. "The guys really got into it."
While the paintball outing seemed to be popular to all, other activities appealed to certain players.
Many appreciated the grueling climb to glory.
"I think the climb to glory was quite good and quite special," Sydor said. "It's a difficult task, quite a hill. It gives us a perspective of what troops have to do. We had to help each other, figure ways to get it done."
Christensen gave a nod to paintball and the climb to glory, but he singled out the warrior hunt.
No wonder. He, wingers Mark Recchi and Jonathan Filewich and senior director of team services and media relations Frank Buonomo won, getting all 15 answers in 66 minutes.
"It was fun, but it was all running, going hard for a long period of time," Christensen said.
The program afforded a brief glimpse of what military training is like.
"I'm not big on the hockey and war comparisons, but you do have success by doing similar things," Scuderi said. "What you do when you come here is reinforce those things."
Scuderi, an American, was one of those who appreciated the history lessons that accompanied the exercises.
Others who grew up in other countries had a bigger learning curve.
"When I was young, I wasn't too interested in [American history], but as you get older, you want to know more," said Ruutu, who served a year in the Finnish army. "You see the movies and everything and now you hear stories about the real world. Mentally, it's really hard. You have to respect the guys who can do that."
It wasn't boot camp, but the players perhaps got a taste -- without being put in harm's way.
"No one passed out. No one puked," Christensen said. "Everyone's tired, and it will be good to sleep in our own beds again, but it was a good experience."
NOTES -- Captain Sidney Crosby participated in a full practice after leaving early the previous two days because of groin soreness. ... Winger George Laraque (hip) also returned to practice. ... Winger Gary Roberts (illness) missed his second day of practice. ... The Penguins will hold a Hockey 'n' Heels event for female fans Nov. 7. Tickets are $130 and include a game ticket, dinner, a tour of Mellon Arena and a question-and-answer session with media members and author Lisa Ovens. Call 412-642-1911.
"Fun, a little bit difficult, but you had to work as a team, you had to come together as a team."
-- Darryl Sydor, on camp at West Point
Shelly Anderson can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1721.