TORONTO - With a delay of more than three months to the start of this year's NHL hockey season, fans—those who aren't completely turned off, that is—are more than ready for the first puck to drop.
But are the players? Will all that extra down time translate into pulled groins and hamstrings, wrenched backs and other injuries that can be put down to lack of conditioning?
Given that players actually had a four-month longer inter-season break—they missed last summer's training camp, after all—it's the obvious question to ask. And it's a situation fans, players, coaches and owners will be watching in coming days as teams launch ultra short training camps to get ready for an abbreviated season.
Injuries are a pain at any point. But when you're talking about a 48-game season, losing a number because of a pulled groin is something players don't even want to think about.
"Obviously if you're playing hard out there, it's part of the game. It's going to happen sometimes, but hopefully we can keep it to a minimum," says Calgary Flames forward Curtis Glencross.
"You miss a few games to an injury ... it could be a third of a season if it’s a minor injury. It's going to be different, but hopefully, knock on wood, we don't get too many injuries and we can keep rolling as a team."
Vancouver Canucks defenceman Kevin Bieksa admits the compressed schedule could pose a greater injury risk, but notes every team is as vulnerable as the next on this.
"Everybody's in the same position, everyone's in the same boat, so you go out and play," Bieksa says.
Randy Carlyle, coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, says his coaching staff will take stock of the condition of Leaf players, and work from there.
"Your team has to stay healthy to be competitive," Carlyle says, but he warns the condition of the players when they report will dictate the intensity of the work.
"I would suggest that if they're not where they should be, there will be extra work at times focused on that."
But former Leafs strength coach Matt Nichol says, in reality, a player who hasn't been keeping in shape during the lockout won't be able to make up lost ground between now and when NHL play actually resumes.
"It's impossible," says Nichol, who runs a business—Paragenix Systems—offering private training to professional hockey players and other athletes.
"You can't take an unfit guy and skate him into the ground in three days and expect that's going to make him better. In fact, it will make him worse."
Still, Nichol doesn't think that's going to be as much of a problem this year as it was in previous labour disputes that disrupted NHL seasons.
Most professional athletes, including hockey players, see year-round training as part of their jobs these days, he says. They know that if they get benched for being out of shape or injured, someone else will be all too willing and ready to step up.
"You can't be complacent. The difference between a fourth-line NHL player and a top-flight minor league player is very small," Nichol says.
"And every year there's a couple dozen young guys coming out of junior and NCAA universities that are extremely hungry and extremely fit and they want to take their jobs. So it's not something you can sleep on. You've got to stay on top of your fitness."
After the last NHL labour dispute, the lost season of 2004-05, a higher than normal number of NHL careers came to an end.
Where about 100 players lose their job from one year to the next, in the year after the cancelled season about 200 players fell off of NHL team rosters, Nichol said. Some observers argue, though, that the league was just catching up, shedding two years' worth of players in one go.
This time, many players have been training with private coaches.
"The vast majority of guys in the NHL have access privately to guys like myself all over North America, and in fact all over the world, wherever they may live in the summer—Sweden, Russia, Finland, wherever it may be," Nichol said.
And about 200 have been playing in Europe, which will given them an advantage even those who have been training with a coach won't have had. Nichol says regardless of how hard players train, it's hard to replicate the contact aspect of hockey—the bashing of bodies against boards.
"So that's something where you might expect that players that did spend some time playing overseas or some players have been doing more aggressive training, they might be a little better prepared for the contact that comes with games," Nichol says.
Still, he notes, not everyone has been as disciplined as they might have been, suggesting a few faces have "come out of the woodwork" in recent days as it appeared a resolution of the dispute might be within reach.
"I'm sure there will be some guys that are caught off guard a little bit or are paying the price for enjoying a little too much vacation time this fall," he says.
As for whether a spate of injuries may follow, Nichol predicts a lot will depend on the approach teams take to conditioning. Some will undoubtedly work players very hard, others will err on the side of caution. It will be interesting to see, he says, which approach results in fewer injuries.
Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson, a league greybeard at age 40, hopes for a Goldilocks-type compromise—tough enough but not too tough.
"You want to maximize the week you have as good as possible, but at the same time you don't want to run the team down too hard," he says.
With files from reporters Greg Strong in Toronto, Monte Stewart in Vancouver, Laurence Heinen in Calgary, Lisa Wallace in Ottawa and Chris Johnston in New York.