More than two-dozen locked-out NHL players skated with clearly renewed vigor this morning at Ridder Arena with word that there may finally be some traction in negotiations to end the 80-plus-day lockout.

I was shooting the breeze with Adam Nugent-Hopkins, the 24-year-old brother of Edmonton Oilers star youngster Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (drafted first overall right here in Minnesota in 2011), during the skate and he made note of this fact when Colorado’s Erik Johnson sprawled to block a shot late in the scrimmage.
“When a guy goes down to block a shot three feet in front when a guy’s shooting from the high slot, the tempo’s picking up and so is the intensity,” Nugent-Hopkins said.
Wild center Kyle Brodziak concurred.
“You can see some excitement with the boys out there,” Brodziak said. “There’s definitely a different feeling. You get the sense there’s a little more urgency from both sides, and it’s good to see. I mean, finally. Finally there’s a little bit of hope from what it looks like right now anyway. It makes these scrimmages a lot easier to get ready for what possibly could be the real thing.
“When there’s no end in sight like it’s felt like the last two, three months, it’s Groundhog Day. You’re training and you’re training to stay in shape, but you don’t really know what for. But when you hear some kind of positive news like yesterday, it makes it a little more fun to come to the rink.”
Added Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom: “Fingers crossed because this is getting old. I think everyone feels the same. Every time we hear something good, practice is better. It’s funny how it goes.”
Still, Dallas Stars defenseman Alex Goligoski is on the NHLPA negotiating committee and is as plugged in as anyone. The former Gopher cautioned to just remain calm.
“It is positive that some progress was made, but until you’re in the final stages of this thing and things are agreed on by both sides, it’s almost foolish to be too optimistic.
“As a player, it’s just foolish to do that to yourself. The way things go, there’s good days and bad days. Yesterday seemed to be a good day. Hopefully it’s not followed by a bad one.”
The NHLPA, led by 18 players including stars Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews and Brad Richards, is expected to make a proposal to the six NHL owners this afternoon. The NHL Board of Governors meeting just wrapped up.
“I’ve been pretty optimistic throughout, but I do think it’s been so close all along that we just needed guys to sit down in a room and be real honest about it,” said Wild veteran Matt Cullen. “The guys that care about the game have finally found their way into the room on both sides. We have some guys that are maybe thinking about the game more than the bottom line for just a second here.”
Added Erik Johnson, the former Gopher and No. 1 pick from St. Louis, about guys like Crosby being in the room: “I think the owners definitely have big respect for some of the guys sitting in that room, and vice versa. Anytime you get new blood in there, I think it helps and hopefully we see some momentum come out of it.”
Wild veteran Matt Cullen remained optimistic and looked reinvigorated on 2-on-1’s with Zach Parise on Wednesday.
“We’ve been skating for so long now with no light at the end of the tunnel, so you kind of have a sense that it could be right around corner here. We all know that if an agreement is reached, it’s going to be a quick turnaround, so we have to be ready. Going to the gym before, you’ve got a new purpose and feel rejuvenated.”
Cullen can’t see this falling apart: “We finally take a look at the big picture, it’s not that far apart. If both sides take a small step toward each other, you’re really close, you’re right there. You get to this point, it seems ridiculous that you’d ever walk away from it now.”
Caution though: Still a long way to go.
By the way, a funny aside, the losing team has to pay the $200 an hour ice at Ridder. Keith Ballard’s been handling the payments and says he’s usually the one to foot the bill because not all players pay up: “Like, how do you forget your wallet everyday?” joked Ballard. “Apparently they think I’m still getting paid.”

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NHL players, owners back at it today

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Russo: Delicate, marathon negotiations will resume after tense, productive day