Some apologized to the fans for toying with their emotions; others said they looked forward to a madcap dash to the Stanley Cup playoffs. To a man, NHL players were of one mind: Sunday was finally a great day for hockey.
As word spread early Sunday that a tentative deal had been reached to end the 113-day lockout, NHL players expressed their unabashed eagerness to get back to what they do best. Montreal Canadiens' defenceman Francis Bouillon spoke for his peers when he said: "We woke up with a smile this morning . . . it's time to move on and think about hockey."
To ensure the players moved on in the right direction, several made a point of telling the fans they were sorry for having fed them another distasteful labour spat, the NHL and NHL Players' Association's third in 17 years.
Calgary Flames' forward Matt Stajan told the Calgary Herald, "It was a lockout that didn't need to happen, and it did. As frustrating as it's been for players and everybody involved in the game, I really do feel for the businesses around the rinks that have been affected by this and the fans who have supported us and make the game happen by buying the tickets and buying the jerseys."
Buffalo Sabres' goaltender Ryan Miller said via email, "Now that we have games on the schedule we just need some fans. I know an apology doesn't make it all better, but it's a place to start. I'm sorry and I hope that fans will forgive us for the role we played in this lockout. We will show up ready to play if they want to come to the rink and watch."
Life is going to be a bit of a whirlwind for players over the next two weeks. They will need to vote to ratify the new collective agreement, report for training camp in the next five or six days and then begin playing games that count a week after that.
Training camps will look dramatically different than normal as teams will not have the benefit of all of their AHL and junior players joining the mix given those teams are still playing games.
Exact details are presently scarce, but several players said they believe that camp will open on Saturday and the season will start a week later. They are expected to play 50 games between mid-January and early May with a full playoffs likely extending into late June, just as they did during the last shortened season in 1995.
"We're going to have a soft open [to training camp] in Boston with all the guys who are there until the whole team is together," said Bruins defenceman Andrew Ference. "We don't have many details yet."
Ference was part of the NHLPA's negotiating committee and agreed with Miller that the fans were the most neglected party in all of this.
"The biggest complaint is the fans lose out in this process," Ference said. "They feel they don't have a voice. I think people have to remember the history of the players and how much we love this game."
As for the final deal the players ended up with, Miller insisted they were happy with the job NHLPA head Donald Fehr did and are willing to live with the compromises they made throughout the process.
"Players should feel good about their resolve," Miller said. "This was never a deal where we were going to do anything other than minimize what we gave back to the league. I think Don did a great job of guiding us through what was a very tough situation –without threatening a full season – from our side."
With a report from Sean Gordon in Montreal