Lockout over, now the labor begins for players and coaches

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 7, 2013 - 6:20 AM

With the much-anticipated, long-delayed NHL season finally to arrive, Wild players scrambled back to town for an abbreviated camp.

Like the rest of the State of Hockey, Dany Heatley got caught up in the Fourth of July fireworks that erupted. In one package deal, the Wild changed the face of its franchise by landing free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.

But then the rug was pulled out from under everybody Sept. 15.

"We were all real excited, and that excitement is coming back now that the lockout is over," Heatley said. "I think Yeozie's [coach Mike Yeo] is going to have us ready."

With the NHL five days from perhaps canceling its second season in eight years, the lockout ended just before 5 a.m. Eastern time Sunday when the NHL tentatively agreed on a new collective bargaining agreement with the players.

The deal needs to be ratified by both sides before a 48-game schedule (expected to start Jan. 19) or a 50-game schedule (expected to start sometime late next week) is released. That's subject to each team's ratification process and timeline, which hasn't been finalized, NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said, though both sides are hoping for Wednesday.

In such a shortened season, one thing is certain: It will be playoff hockey every night.

"You could make or break your year in the first 20 games," Heatley said.

The Wild, which has missed the playoffs the past four years, looks to snap that drought with a rebuilt team thanks to signing Parise, Suter, forwards Zenon Konopka and Torrey Mitchell and the infusion of the long-awaited Mikael Granlund.

"We've been waiting for good news and finally got it," said Parise, who first heard it from his wife, Alisha, when she woke him up Sunday morning. "Now let's move on and get the season going. I can't wait to be able to get into the arena and hang out in the locker room. But most importantly, to be able to finally play for the team and practice for the team and have this be official will be great."

It was still unknown late Sunday when training camp would begin (possibly as soon as Wednesday), how long it would it be (perhaps six or seven days) and how long coaches would have access to players (CBA restriction yet to be released).

Regardless, it will be a whole lot different than your typical 20-day preseason with seven or eight exhibition games. Yeo was "fired up" to get started but concerned, saying: "I'm a bit of a perfectionist where if I haven't covered everything completely where I'm satisfied, then I just don't feel quite right. There's no way in a six- or seven-day camp you're going to be able to feel like that at the end of the week."

Training camp on the fly

Yeo said it will be critical to gauge each player's fitness level at the start of camp. Because of time constraints, the Wild won't do actual fitness testing, partially because General Manager Chuck Fletcher doesn't want to risk injuries.

"It'll be a little bit like Christmas morning -- going down and opening up your presents, you don't know what's inside," Fletcher said. "Hopefully there's no tough surprises. We expect the conditioning levels of our players and maybe the health will be all over the map."

Two question marks coming into camp involve forward Pierre-Marc Bouchard and defenseman Marco Scandella.

Bouchard has missed more than a year because of a concussion, and while he has said he is close to 100 percent, he hasn't been cleared to play because he hasn't faced contact yet. Scandella, playing for the Wild's AHL affiliate in Houston, has a groin injury.

Granlund will be slotted at second-line center, while Bouchard has been slotted as a wing on the third line. If Bouchard's not ready, the door opens for Aeros prospects Jason Zucker (he leads American Hockey League rookie forwards with 15 goals), Charlie Coyle and Johan Larsson.

But with little time in camp and almost no forward spots open, the Wild will have limited "tryouts."

"We're basically going to have to pick a team," Fletcher said. "We're not going to have the time to be quote-unquote fair, to give guys opportunities. There's just no time."

Yeo added, "This camp is less about evaluation and more about preparation."

With Scandella and Jonas Brodin (broken clavicle, out another two to four weeks) hurt, the Wild might be forced to search for a defenseman. The Wild would be down to six blue-liners, including Justin Falk and Nate Prosser, who have each played fewer than 100 NHL games.

Fletcher said he will assess if Scandella is a short-term or long-term issue in camp. With the Wild probably going to sign forward Nick Palmieri, it would be at 50 max contracts, meaning the way to get a defensemen is most likely via trade or bringing in 2012 first-round pick Matt Dumba, who has struggled for Red Deer of the Western Hockey League, for a look.

"I need to get more info on Scandella," Fletcher said. "In the perfect world you'd have a little time to sort things out. This isn't going to be a perfect world."

Players rush to return

NHL players began to scurry back to their home markets Sunday, especially those playing in Europe. For the Wild, the majority of players spent the lockout in or around Minnesota.

Captain Mikko Koivu, who returned to Finland last month, and Heatley, who was at home in Kelowna, British Columbia, will arrive Tuesday.

"I'm frantically packing, trying to figure out what to take and what to leave behind," Heatley said.

But finally, the Wild will be back together with renewed optimism and definite excitement.

"It feels almost like the first week of July when we signed Suter and Parise," goalie Niklas Backstrom said. "You start to look at the young players and how good they're playing [in Houston], it feels like the summer when we were excited for the team to get to camp.

"It's going to be fun and it's going to be hard and tough, probably good times and bad times, but that's what you're waiting for. This is my seventh season. On paper it should be the strongest team we have had so far. But it's early. We have to make it a strong team on the ice, too."

  • NHL LOCKOUT ENDS DAY 113

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