COLUMBUS, Ohio - A dozen or so Columbus Blue Jackets players went through a light workout on Monday, their first unofficial meeting since the NHL and the players' union reached a tentative agreement a day earlier after a lengthy lockout.
All said they were pleased just to get back to work.
"It's just great to see all the boys back in Columbus here and skating together," defenceman James Wisniewski said of the skatearound at the public rink adjoining Nationwide Arena, where the Blue Jackets play their games.
Somebody had to pay the rental fee to reserve the ice time, although no one was quite sure who did it.
Forward R.J. Umberger, who spent his idle time as a volunteer coach with his former college team at Ohio State, helped organize things. Goalie Steve Mason, Wisniewski and forwards Derick Brassard, Derek Dorsett, Derek MacKenzie, Jared Boll and Tomas Kubalik worked up a sweat along with team newcomers Nick Foligno, a left wing, and Adrian Aucoin, a defenceman.
Another former Ohio State player, Toronto Maple Leafs centre Dave Steckel, also joined in.
It's an odd time for the players. They recognize that there is a lot of anger from fans who are upset over the lengthy delay to the start of the season. On top of that, there are businesses—local parking lots, restaurants, bars and hotels—who suffered as a result of the lockout.
"It's obviously going to be a little bit of a process to get everyone back in and to get the whole community back on our side," said Boll, who has served as an enforcer in his five years with the Blue Jackets. "But it'll happen. Once the players get back in here people are going to start getting the itch to be back here watching hockey again. It'll work out. And I'm looking forward to it."
The Blue Jackets group was expected to meet every day this week, with a few players added along the way. Since the collective bargaining agreement between the NHL owners and players union has yet to be vetted and approved by both sides, no official workouts can take place. So that means no coaches, no use of training facilities and no current minor-league players.
If things work out, practices could begin later this week with the first games a week or 10 days after that. But right now, as a member of the Blue Jackets front office put it, "We're all in limbo."
Several Columbus players are still overseas, including defencemen Fedor Tyutin and Artem Anisimov, goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and centre Artem Anisimov who all play in Russia's Continental Hockey League. Vinny Prospal is in his native Czech Republic playing for another team.
Several other younger players are biding their time with the Blue Jackets' top minor-league affiliate, the Springfield Falcons of the American Hockey League.
When the CBA is finally signed and full-bore practices begin, Columbus is expected to have around 25 players in camp, give or take a few. That probably includes young forwards Cam Atkinson, Ryan Johansen, Matt Calvert and defencemen Tim Erixon, David Savard, John Moore and Nick Holden, who have all played at Springfield during the lockout.
Brandon Dubinsky, acquired along with Anisimov and Erixon in the blockbuster deal last summer that sent Blue Jackets' career scoring leader Rick Nash to the New York Rangers, had yet to arrive in Columbus after playing for the Alaska Aces of the ECHL.
No one yet knows when practices will officially start, or when the games will begin. The length of the season, when it ends and how many rounds of playoff games also have yet to be decided. It is assumed that the teams will play 48 games in a shortened season and then continue through the typical four rounds of playoffs, although nothing is set in stone.
Still, the mood of those on the ice was upbeat.
Wisniewski, who watched the Blue Jackets stumble to an NHL-worst record of 29-46-7 in his first season, believes the key to the shortened season is a fast start.
"You almost have to outsmart teams at the beginning—know your systems, don't have mental breakdowns where you give up 2-on-1s and give up those easy goals," he said. "We have some new guys to get the systems down. And we have young legs. We have to be one of the younger teams in the league. We only have four or five 30-year-olds on our team. Everybody's in their 20s and eager to start."
Foligno was picked up in a trade this summer for defenceman Marc Methot and then signed a free-agent contract with Columbus. He's expected to be one of the key people to provide scoring in place of the departed Nash.
"I'm so happy to be here, and so excited for the season to start," he said. "I'm really looking forward to a good season here.
He's not alone.
Follow Rusty Miller on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/rustymillerap
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