Paintball and sleep primers: Behind the scenes at Detroit Red Wings development camp

Detroit Free Press

The five-day affair concluded with a spirited and fast-paced three-on-three tournament, but the real value of Detroit Red Wings development camp is what happens away from the ice.

Nearly 50 players participated at Little Caesars Arena, including all 11 selections from the just-completed 2023 NHL draft. Dan Cleary, the assistant director of player development, was among the team personnel in charge of guiding the players the Wings are counting on to turn into future NHLers.

“We say it but I feel like they don’t believe us: It’s more just education,” Cleary said Wednesday. “Come in, have fun, meet people, hopefully your future teammates. We flood them with information. It’s almost overload and then we’ll circle back with them, whether it’s nutrition or sleep. But the on-ice stuff, the skating and the skills, a lot of these guys just need to continue to work on it. Almost every kid here has to get stronger in some aspect of their body.”

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That is where team dietician Lisa McDowell has a starring role, guiding the teenagers on what to eat and when.

“A lot of these kids don’t know how to cook, they don’t know how to grocery shop,” Cleary said. “They think what they’re eating is good, but Lisa is great at educating these kids, giving them recipes that they can cook and learn, for all different times of day, whether it be breakfast, snacks, before a game, after a game. It’s a lot for these kids to take in, but when they are turning pro it’s a really big thing because they are living on their own and they have to go get groceries, they have to cook, they have to figure it out.

“I remember when I was 18, 19, I didn’t have that. As you get older, you get better at it. So we are just trying to give them all the information we can so they’ll be like, ‘Oh, I’ll have this instead of that.’

Hungry for more

Front-office attendees also included Kris Draper, who this week added assistant general manager to his title of director of amateur scouting. (“He tells me, ‘I draft them,’ and then he hands them to me,” Cleary said. “That’s the jokey thing we do.”) Draper spoke of the advantage of having some current Wings around — Michael Rasmussen stopped by, as did Ben Chiarot — and raved about what a benefit it is for the prospects to see what life is like at LCA.

“I wish I had everything these guys had,” Draper said. “Where we were, playing games at Joe Louis Arena — we’ll be the first ones to say it: It was a dump, but it was our dump. And we loved it, walking into that rink. It was a special feeling. But these guys, what they have, and everything that they have, even recovery, the equipment. I have to be honest, I snuck in a couple recovery stuff in these great massage chairs. I’d never leave this place, I can tell you that. With the food that they have, the workout, the facility, the rink. It’s incredible.”

Turn off the phone

In addition to nutrition, rest is a major focus. “One of the big things is getting enough hours of sleep every night,” 2021 second-round pick Shai Buium said. “And then they talk about how, the more you get used to going to bed earlier, your body will get used to waking up earlier. And little things like stepping outside and seeing daylight as the first thing in the morning is really good for you. Little things really make a big change.”

Amadeus Lombardi, a third-round pick in 2022, also came away with valuable advice. “Some of the things they were talking about were, you don’t really want to be on blue-light technology an hour before bed,” he said. “Try and get on the same routine. Even temperature in your room and how dark it is. There’s a lot of cool things they taught us about that we’re definitely going to take home and work on.”

Shot development

As the prospects mature and gain muscle, their shot usually improves, too. But camp provided an opportunity for a different kind of shooting. “We went and played paintball and it’s a fun thing to do,” Cleary said. “It really shows you what kind of kids you have. When you say go, certain kids go. Some kids methodically think, where should I go? Some stay back and wait.”

Most, it turns out, turn their paintball guns on Cleary. “They targeted me like you wouldn’t believe,” he said, smiling. “I was first out in two of the games. They had me pegged.”

Cleary shared an anecdote that reflects well on 2022 first-round pick Marco Kasper. “We’re playing paintball the other night and he loses, and he says, “Congratulations,” and he’s very sincere when he says it,” Cleary said. “I would be sarcastically saying it, but he’s a genuinely good person and a hard-working kid.”

Contact Helene St. James at hstjames@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames.

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Her latest book, “On the Clock: Behind the Scenes with the Detroit Red Wings at the NHL Draft,” is available from  Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail.

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