The clock is already ticking for NHL players preparing to return to the ice.
With the end to the lockout pending, there will only be time for a brief training camp before a compressed schedule of 48 or 50 games.
The next few weeks will quickly show whether players who haven’t played a competitive game since last spring are ready for the rigours of a regular season.
“I don’t think it’ll be too tough,” said Montreal Canadiens forward Travis Moen. “Guys are professionals, so you should have been keeping yourself in decent shape all this time.
“We’ll have some time to skate before, and then you make the best of it.”
The NHL and the players reached a tentative agreement early Sunday morning but no details on how many games each team would play or when the season would begin were released.
There may be a wide disparity in game-readiness when the season does finally get underway.
About 200 players got game action skating for European clubs during the lockout, and most teams sent a few of their younger players to the American Hockey League.
But most, like Montreal captain Brian Gionta, did their best just to stay fit and keep their skills sharp by skating a few times a week in small groups on rented ice.
“Their timing and game-readiness would be there for sure,” he said of those who played during the lockout. “It’ll take a few games to get caught up, but that’s the reality of where we’re at.”
A big concern will be staying healthy.
Injuries in the NBA reportedly rose more than 14 per cent from the previous season after their lockout ended in December 2011. Teams played a 66-game schedule after a short training camp. Some, including commissioner David Stern, disputed the injuries were the result of the lockout.
The shortened NHL schedule will have teams averaging more than 3.5 games per week.
“It’s one of the more obvious things that might happen, especially groins, hip flexors, that sort of thing,” said Vancouver Canucks forward Chris Higgins. “I think you’ll see some teams with troubles with that early on.
“Hopefully, you’ve been doing the right things leading up to this.”
His teammate Manny Malhotra said even that may not be enough.
“Watching the NBA last year try to squeeze in as many games as possible, it’s very taxing on the body,” said Malhotra. “(Hockey) is obviously a lot more physical game than basketball.
“I would see it being a real grind on the players with very little rest. We always say: ‘You can ride a bike as much as you want, you can practise as much as you want, you can bag-skate as much as you want, but there’s no substitute for actual game action.'”
There isn’t expected to be time for pre-season games, as coaches will have enough to do just getting players back on the same page. In some cases, teams have new coaches who will have little time to work in a new system.
Players looking to earn an NHL contract in camp must be as impressive as possible in intra-squad games.
Among them is veteran forward Steve Begin, who has a tryout invitation to the Calgary Flames camp.
“I won’t have much time to show what I can do but I’m confident,” the 34-year-old said. “I’ve been working hard all summer and the last three months.
“I haven’t played a game in a year and a half, so I’m excited. I’ll take my chance and do as much as I can.”
One who shrugs at the compressed schedule is Canucks captain Henrik Sedin, who said it is “not a problem. We’re used to travelling. We’re used to playing pretty much every second night. If they throw in one or two more games over a certain period of time, that’s fine.”
Many players had already lost an entire season during the 2004-05 lockout, but only a handful recall the 1994-95 stoppage, which also ended in January and was followed by a 48-game schedule.
The Detroit Red Wings (33-11-4) and Quebec Nordiques (30-13-5) were the top regular-season teams that season, but it was the fifth-place overall New Jersey Devils who won the Stanley Cup. The defending champion New York Rangers barely squeaked into the playoffs at 22-23-3.
Physical defenceman Jim Vandermeer, a free agent who played for San Jose last season, expects the short season to be a wild ride.
“It’ll be really exciting for the fans,” he said. “Every game is going to matter that much more.
“You really can’t (waste) any games in an 82-game season let alone a shorter one. It’s going to be a race to the finish. Everybody’s going to be flying right off the bat. I’m sure it’ll be a lot of fun to watch.”
—With files from Monte Stewart in Vancouver