PHILADELPHIA – Flyers All-Star Claude Giroux received the wakeup call he waited to hear for 113 days.
Locked out for months, the NHL was indeed ready to drop the puck.
“It’s a beautiful day for Hockey,” he posted Sunday on Twitter.
Call the overseas players and tell them to come on home to New Jersey and Pennsylvania and other states where the NHL only existed in the form of messy labour updates. The NHL and the players’ association agreed on a tentative pact to end the lockout and save what is left of a fractured schedule.
Let the training camps begin.
“I’m ready to play,” Flyers veteran defenceman Kimmo Timonen said. “We’re just waiting for the season to get started. It’s been a long four months.”
But, finally, fans can stop thinking about board rooms and talking heads dressed in suits. Rather, it’s time to get ready for Sid the Kid. It’s time for the Los Angeles Kings to go defend the Stanley Cup. It’s time to watch your team play, oh, about four times per week.
Sure, the Winter Classic was wiped out. The All-Star game went bust.
But at 48 or 50 games, it’s still hockey at the highest level.
One of the questions that arises now, of course, and after any sort of stoppage for that matter, is will the fans come back? This is the third labour dispute in Commissioner Gary Bettman’s tenure, and though the fans returned in the past, the jury is out this time.
NHL fan Steve Chase started the grass roots “Just Drop It” campaign that encouraged fans to skip one NHL game for every game cancelled after Dec. 21st. He asked fans to pledge they would not spend a penny or a minute of their time on tickets, TV, merchandise, all things NHL.
Nearly 21,000 fans had clicked the “like” button on the group’s Facebook page by Sunday afternoon. And Chase, who lives in Los Angeles, wrote on the site he would stay true to his commitment.
“AS IT STANDS RIGHT NOW: Games cancelled from Dec 21 to Jan 14th average out to 10 per team,” he wrote. “They took 10 from us, we’ll take 10 from them. No tickets, no TV, no merchandise.”
Chase said there was growing sentiment among his friends to skip the entire season. He said the league and players didn’t think enough about the part-time employees and local businesses who needed the sport to help survive the winter months.
“Look at all the bars around the rinks and all the shops that sold jerseys. They’re all getting killed,” he said by phone. “We kept promoting, go to those bars and buy pizza. Keep them going. When hockey comes back, you’re going to want somewhere to go.”
At downtown Detroit’s Rub BBQ Pub, manager Chris Eid said he was “ecstatic” when he heard the news Sunday morning. And the settlement and the promise of a return to NHL action was a big topic of conversation among his afternoon customers, he said.
“Everyone misses hockey,” Eid said. “And now we’re getting it back.”
Many of the NHL players can understand the chilly reception from the fans.
“To the fans that won’t come back, I can understand,” Phoenix Coyotes forward Paul Bissonnette wrote on Twitter. “To the ones that will, thank you for your patience. Welcome back NHL hockey.”
Amid the realization they’ll have to repair the damaged relationship with the die-hards, Flyers chairman Ed Snider told The Associated Press he hoped the fans returned to support the league.
“I’m hoping that our fans understand this was something that had to be done for the strength of the league, for the strength of the Players Association,” Snider said by phone. “I hope they don’t hold it against us and just come out and see some great hockey. If I had to guess, I think we’re going to be in great shape.”
The Nashville Predators encouraged fans to wear team colours on Monday in a show of solidarity. Tennessee Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck tweeted, “Welcome back!” at a trio of Predators.
It won’t be a rosy return for every player. The New Jersey Devils have four players still overseas, including star forward Ilya Kovalchuk, who could well become the team’s captain now that forward Zach Parise is in Minnesota. Giroux (neck) and his Flyers teammate, forward Danny Briere (wrist), were injured in their European stints. Giroux is expected to be ready for training camp. Briere’s status is unknown.
The players have been locked out since Sept. 16, the day after the previous agreement expired. That deal came after an extended lockout that wiped out the entire 2004-05 season.
Coyotes captain Shane Doan said the players agreed to the best deal it could thanks to union executive director Donald Fehr.
“From being in the room quite a bit, there was a sense this was the best deal available,” he said in New York. “It’s always tough because we’re all fans of the game and we wish we didn’t have to go through this. But we did, and we’re on the other side now.”
All games through Jan. 14 had already been cancelled, claiming more than 50 per cent of the original schedule. Teams will hold a brief training camp, maybe a week, before starting at least a 48-game season.
“Training camp, usually you do three days then you start exhibition games,” Flyers forward Max Talbot said. “I believe it’s enough. Sometimes training camp is too long. It’s nice to get in the action. Forty-eight games in a little bit of time … I think it would be exciting.”
The Flyers, Bruins and the Sidney Crosby-led Penguins were among the teams that worked out on their own, some paying for ice time at their team’s own practice rinks.
Bruins captain Zdeno Chara was set to return to North America this week after playing for Prague Lev of the KHL. The Russian league was a popular landing spot for locked-out players, who decided the structure—and payday—was worth the risk of injury as they waited out the dispute.
“It was fun, it was great to be doing the practices and being with my (Bruins) teammates,” Chara, a defenceman, said. “At the same time, it wasn’t organized hockey under some kind of a system and schedule. That’s why I choose to go to Europe and play over here.”
Well, he can pack his sticks and catch a plane. That practice ice time price is about to get slashed to “free.”
Flyers forward Jody Shelley said teammate Scott Hartnell gave him the good news the lockout was about over via a text at 5:30 a.m. Sunday. Shelley expected more of his teammates to trickle in this week to the Flyers’ New Jersey training facility.
“We can get back as a group, get back as a team,” he said. “We’re the Philadelphia Flyers. That’s what we want to be, all of us. We left there last May and we couldn’t wait to get back in September and get at it.
Four months later, it’s time to play. Finally.
AP Sports Writer Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Tenn., contributed to this report.
Follow Dan Gelston at www.twitter.com/APGelston