Sunday, January 6, 2013

NHL lockout: It's finally over

NHL, NHLPA tentatively agree on new 10-year
CBA; Blues players relieved season was saved

CHESTERFIELD, Mo. -- The words "it's over" never resonated more positively to a National Hockey League player than they did in the early hours Sunday morning.

David Backes was awakened after 4 a.m. with texts from fellow National Hockey League Players Association members, Andy McDonald woke up and "figured something was up" when he checked his phone, T.J. Oshie was a late-bloomer with the news, finding out at 9:30 a.m. and Ian Cole, well ... fellow Peoria Rivermen teammate Cade Fairchild broke the news to him at the team hotel in San Antonio around 8 a.m. His response: "I got excited for a little bit and went back to sleep."

Fair enough.

It severed 113 days of what was supposed to be the 2012-13 National Hockey League season, but after some long and at times arduous efforts, the NHL and NHLPA came to a tentative agreement on a new collective-bargaining agreement that was announced by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA Executive Director Don Fehr at roughly 4:30 a.m. (St. Louis time).

A bargaining session that lasted every second of 16 hours finally broke through on the remaining issues that prolonged the league's third lockout since 1995 and nearly left a second canceled season in balance since 2005.

"Apparently it just took some sleep deprivation and getting the two sides together," Blues captain David Backes said. "Happy to be back and it's about dang time."

Now that the parameters of the new CBA -- which is a 10-year deal with a mutual opt-out clause after eight years -- are drawn up, it must officially be ratified and go before both parties for a vote. The players are expected to have their vote in by Monday night and the league should have their stamp of approval in by no later than Wednesday following the Board of Governors meeting.

Overall, it was a drawn out process that exhausted all parties and fans alike, including those that stuck with the players and game they love as well as those that said enough is enough. In the end, a deal looks to be done and abbreviated training camps (the Blues will hold theirs at Scottrade Center) will get underway sometime within the next week and either a 48- or 50-game season will get underway no later than Jan. 19.

"I think it's still a little surreal," Backes said. "It's been such a roller coaster of ups and downs. There's progress, there's not, it's blown up, it's together ... it's been a road of trials and tribulations. To have it over with, it's great to be back and to still have potentially a 50-game season ahead of us ... (despite) all the pain and agony that's gone through on both sides.

"Hopefully, we haven't pissed too many fans off. We have a 50-game season to go, we're going to have a great product on the ice. I think the city of St. Louis and the Blues are still in that upward trajectory with something to prove and we're going to continue the momentum of last year."

The Blues, who had a handful of skaters on hand Sunday at the Hardees Iceplex in Chesterfield for a late afternoon/early evening skate, felt a different sense of intensity skating knowing now there's a purpose.

"I'm excited, a little nervous to get out there but really excited," said winger T.J. Oshie, who signed a new four-year contract over the summer. "I don't even know what word I can (use) to describe it. Maybe Christmas day when you're about 10 years old. That's kind of how I think of it. (You're) so excited. You're waiting for it so long to get there.

"It's been a tough process. I think it's been tough on everyone, especially the fans who have been waiting for this to happen. It's just great that it's all over and we can get out and start playing the game we love again."

Veteran Andy McDonald, who along with Backes has been directly involved with talks for much of the process, has been one of the most outspoken players believing a deal would eventually get done despite many negative outcries that the season would be lost.

He's just glad its all come to fruition.

"Before I went to sleep (Saturday) night, I think they were real close and I think everyone kind of thought of that yesterday ... that whether it was late last night or sometime today that there would be a deal," McDonald said. "You look at the issues and what was left to figure out and how far they came from the start, I just thought there would be too much damage to the game to miss a year over it, especially getting down to the wire with what was left to figure out. You still kind of believed there would be a season."

The Blues, who finished second in the Western Conference a season ago but were bounced in four games by eventual Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles in the conference semifinals, know the task at hand is 1) prepare for a sprint to the finish of an abbreviated season and 2) win the fans back over again ... at least those that are teetering on abandoning ship or those that left a long time ago.

But since the Blues created such a buzz in the city with their re-emergence again and with new ownership in place led by Tom Stillman, hockey in St. Louis won't take much time to get off the ground.

"We know what's expected," McDonald said. "It's our job now to try and win them back and the best way we can do that is putting the best product we can on the ice, being out in the community ... things we've always done in the past become important now.

"The fans have been really supportive. Just today, it's been really upbeat. A lot of people stopping to talk to you and their message is clear (that) they're excited. You've got to appreciate that because certainly you understand the frustration."

Added Backes: "It's great to hear and a lot of people saying they want to wear their Christmas gifts of the Blues and stuff. Now thankfully, they can. ... The fans deserve the game on the ice. Hopefully, we still have a full building. All those fans deserve a lot of credit for sticking with us through the business side, the ugly side of business."

They know it won't be easy.

"That is such a hard kind of consolation to me," said Cole, who had 14 points in 34 games for the Rivermen this season. "How do you console a group of people that feel like they've been completely used by random people they don't even know? The whole thing is not good.

"It's been real tough for them and I'm sure extremely frustrating, as it has been for a lot of people in this situation, players included. For them having no personal stake, I can actually imagine that it has been more frustrating. So to them, we hope they come back. We hope that they're still fans of the NHL and still fans of players and the personalities that the players provide. We do have the greatest fans in the world, so them coming back, hopefully will happen."

Added Oshie: "The fans that we did lose: I'm sorry. I hope they come back, and the fans that stuck with us, hats off to them ... thank you. Hopefully we can make this -- what's left of the season -- a memorable one."

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