Jarome Iginla was held out of practice with a groin injury, Scott Gomez was sent home and Roberto Luongo’s status was still up in the air.
It’s one day into the abbreviated NHL season and Canada’s teams are already having to deal with thorny issues.
The Montreal Canadiens made a big splash as soon the season got underway Sunday, sending underperforming centre Gomez home for the rest of the season.
The move by new general manager Marc Bergevin will allow the Canadiens to buy out Gomez’s contract in the summer and clear US$7.3 million in salary cap space for next season.
With the Canadiens still working on signing restricted free agent defenceman P.K. Subban the cap relief was necessary.
“With where the cap is going to be next year, we had to buy out Scott’s contract and the safest way to do that without risking him being injured was to send him home,” said Bergevin. “It’s the rules we have to play by.”
Under the new collective bargaining agreement signed Saturday, teams will be allowed two “amnesty” buyouts next season to help reach the cap. However, if a player is injured when the buyout period begins in July, he cannot be bought out.
Canadiens fans have been urging the team to dump the 12-year NHL veteran, who is popular with his teammates but whose production has dropped alarmingly from his best seasons with the New Jersey Devils in the early to mid-2000s.
Bergevin called the 33-year-old into his office to tell him of the decision early Sunday morning and he was gone when camp officially opened with 23 players taking the ice more than three hours later.
“Unfortunately, the personal side of the game is really hard when the business side takes over,” said captain Brian Gionta of his linemate in both New Jersey and later in Montreal. “We’ll do whatever we can to support him.”
Other general managers found themselves dealing with early issues after sitting through a 113-day work stoppage.
In Calgary, team captain Iginla watched from the owner’s box as the Flames participated in their first skate of the season. While fans who took in the practice may have been worried when the team’s leader and offensive catalyst didn’t participate, the Flames say they are just being cautious.
“We told Jarome that we didn’t want him to skate today,” said Calgary general manager Jay Feaster. “We said that we won’t get any points this week, but next Sunday we’d like to pick up two.
“It’s nothing that we’re concerned about. It’s just that we don’t want to push right now when we don’t think there’s a reason to do that.”
The Toronto Maple Leafs and Vancouver Canucks both open training camp with distractions in goal, but for different reasons.
The Canucks opened camp with all-star goalie Roberto Luongo and his sizable contract still part of the team. Luongo lost his starting job to Cory Schneider during last season’s playoffs.
While Vancouver general manager Mike Gillis insists he’s in no hurry to move Luongo, the goaltender has 10 years remaining on a 12-year, $64-million contract. Luongo ($5.3 million) and Schneider ($4 million) will account for $9.3 million worth of Vancouver’s salary cap this season. The $70.2-million cap is slated to be slashed to $64.3 million next season.
“I certainly don’t believe you give away all-star players because of some idea that you’re under pressure because it’s an untenable situation,” Gillis said. “He’s too good a player for that. We can work with him.
“I know we can. We’ve done it in the past year.”
The rumoured frontrunner for Luongo’s services is Toronto, which opens camp with the goaltending tandem of James Reimer and Ben Scrivens, who have all of 83 games of NHL experience between them.
While new Leafs general manager Dave Nonis acknowledged that he would look at adding veteran players in a trade, he made it clear that he wasn’t prepared to mortgage the future to acquire one. That means players like young defencemen Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner appear to be off-limits.
“We do have some decent building blocks in place and we’re not going to blow them up in order to try to move one step closer,” Nonis said.
NHL teams also faced the potentially daunting task of winning back fans angered or turned off by the lockout. Using Twitter and other forms of social media, many fans made it known they were unhappy having NHL hockey shelved again so soon after losing the entire 2004-05 season to a work stoppage.
“My message to the fans to come out and support the team, you’re going to want to be part of this because this is going to be a great, great team for the coming years if not immediately and you don’t want to be left out in the cold,” Ottawa owner Eugene Melnyk said at a news conference before the Senators opened training camp.
“As a die-hard fan, you are part of this organization. I just want you guys back.”
While owners, general managers and coaches felt the stress of scrambling to prepare their teams for the upcoming season, players were clearly relieved to be back on the ice.
New Leafs forward James van Riemsdyk says he grew tired of all the talk that surrounded the labour dispute—with terms like disclaimer of interest, memorandum of understanding and make-whole payments entering the hockey lexicon.
“Those are all SAT words,” van Riemsdyk said. “I’m done hopefully for awhile listening to those types of words. We’re all happy to be playing again.”
The fans in Canadian cities seemed ready to forgive, with robust attendances at Sunday’s practices.
“It’s awesome,” said Winnipeg’s Blake Wheeler when 5,000 fans took in Sunday’s Jets practice. “We all know how privileged we are to play in a market like this. To have that kind of reception, that might be some team’s home games in the early going.”
Edmonton Oilers captain Shawn Horcoff said he’s looking forward to putting three miserable seasons behind him. The Oilers have a stockpile of explosive young scoring talent at their disposal this season.
“It’s nice to be in the (hunt for the) playoffs in January. We’re right there. We’re tied for first!” Shawn Horcoff joked with reporters as the team opened training camp.
“Listen, the biggest thing is it’s been three hard years for the people in the rink and the fans,” he said. “We feel now like because of those years we’ve been able to build a little bit of a foundation here with some skill.”