Penguins win drill instructor's praise at West Point boot camp

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WEST POINT, N.Y. -- Sergei Gonchar served his mandatory two-year stint in the Russian Army, but nothing he experienced then prepared him for the military-style workout the Penguins went through yesterday.

Mostly because, back in his solider days, Gonchar carried a hockey stick instead of a rifle.

"I was playing for the Army team instead of really being in the [actual] army," he said.

There were no exemptions for Gonchar and his teammates yesterday, though, aside from the medical one injured defenseman Eric Cairns received.

Twenty-six of them gathered on the artificial turf at Michie Stadium on a bright, early autumn morning for a one-hour indoctrination to conditioning, West Point-style.

The workout was run by J.B. Spisso, a 1984 Greensburg Central Catholic graduate and longtime Penguins fan who is a first sergeant and general manager of the U.S. Military Academy's sports facility.

He looks the part of a drill instructor -- from his brush cut and sunglasses to the black T-shirt and camouflage pants on what appears to be a fat-free physique -- and wields a bullhorn as deftly as Sidney Crosby handles a puck.

"I wouldn't mess with him," left winger Andre Roy said.

No one else tried, either, which might be part of the reason Spisso gave the group high marks for its work after the players had trudged off to practice.

"They did a really nice job," he said. "I was very impressed. No one gave up. Some people did a little bit better than others but overall, as a group, I'd grade them an 'A.' "

He put the Penguins, all sporting the "Take The Next Step" T-shirts they have worn throughout camp, through a number of demanding exercises, from running up and down the stadium steps while carrying a rubber rifle to something called the "Buddy Drag," in which two players pull a "wounded" teammate 50 yards, then switch positions and cover the remaining 50.

In an impressive show of sportsmanship, not a single fistfight broke out over the right to haul 169-pound goalie Jocelyn Thibault up and down the field.

"I'd hate to be the guy dragging a guy like [222-pound defenseman] Joey Melichar," Crosby said. He described himself as "lucky" because his threesome included Mark Recchi and Daniel Carcillo and "they weren't too big."

Although Spisso homed in on one group whose execution in the "Buddy Drag" was a bit lacking -- "Stay low you two, you're taking fire," he barked into the bullhorn -- the players got generally good reviews for their execution and effort.

"The guys are giving everything they've got," said Stephane Dube, the Penguins' fitness coach, while watching the "Buddy Drag." Dube said he declined to offer input on Spisso's workout because he wanted the players to get the full flavor and benefit from something out of the ordinary.

After Spisso's high-energy session, the Penguins had an on-ice workout at the Tate Rink for a little more than an hour. After lunch, they received a "West Point briefing" on leadership and related topics.

The real highlight of the Penguins' visit will be a military-style exercise in a swamp tonight. That activity is supposed to be based on actual war scenarios, with success hinging on cooperation and teamwork and key intangibles being exposed in the process.

Their time in the swamp figures to be the most demanding the Penguins will spend here, but yesterday's workout featured a few activities that strained muscles and, occasionally, a few players' will. Several singled out a drill that required them, while lying on their backs, to elevate their feet about 6 inches while holding a rubber rifle over their heads, and maintain that position for several minutes.

Others pointed to the "Buddy Drag" -- "That was pretty good," Roy said -- and a few mentioned the lengthy set of jumping-jacks that concluded the workout.

The latter provide a sample of the mental demands Spisso made on the players. Although most previous calisthenics had been done in sets of about 20, he ran the total of jumping-jacks to 100. And when they were completed, he ordered 100 more.

Spisso, probably as planned, cut it off after about 10, presumably because no one had complained about the extra demand he made on them, accepting the unexpected challenge without complaint.

And even though Crosby, who puts himself through an extremely challenging offseason regimen, said, "I thought I was in good shape until I came here," the reality is that the Penguins showed themselves to be fit and committed.

"They're conditioned extremely well for what they do," Spisso said. "I was expecting them to give their best, and they did."

NOTES --

Gonchar, who had been off skates for three days because of a minor hip injury, reported no problem after going through practice. ... Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has a welt on his back -- and a bit less blood than usual -- to remind him of the Penguins' paintball outing Monday night. He said he was shot by "about five guys" simultaneously while acting out a hostage-rescue mission. ... Crosby, on a drill in which players pretended to shoot a gun, roll sideways, then shoot again before running 10 yards upfield and starting over: "Obviously, it's a lot more fun when you don't have a guy shooting at you in real life."


Dave Molinari can be reached at DWMolinari@Yahoo.com .


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