RALEIGH, N.C. — If you didn’t know any better, you would have thought the Carolina Hurricanes were in the midst of a hot streak the way Chad LaRose was belting out the lyrics to a country song blaring out of the speakers late Wednesday morning.
Of course, that there was no training or coaching staff around and barely more than a handful of players changing was a dead giveaway that there was little about the get-together that was official. It was just LaRose and some teammates after a workout among themselves.
That scene is probably played out in 29 other NHL towns around North America these days, as teams slowly come together to prepare for the 2013 season, which finally has life with the recent agreement between players and owners, ending a lengthy lockout that as of this writing has cost the Hurricanes 44 games from their original schedule.
But LaRose and his Carolina teammates were all smiles working out at Raleigh Center Ice. They went through myriad of drills, building a drenching sweat. Things have gotten serious on the ice, but it’s still fun. The stress and frustration of the unknown each player and fan lived with dating back to September is now in the rear-view mirror.
“I think it was frustrating for everybody,” LaRose said. “For us, the fans definitely, the owners, it’s frustrating for everybody. We’re happy to be back on the ice and playing hockey.”
Nobody is interested in playing the blame game anymore, and the players realize they have to deliver a strong product to win back the confidence and faith of the fans. Perennial All-Star Eric Staal wanted to apologize for the missed time and frustration the fans must have felt.
“First off, sorry,” he said. “You have to be sorry for putting the fans of the game through that. It was extremely difficult … As players, you want to play in front of your fans. Those are things you dream of as a kid.
“Hopefully, we can perform as best we can on the ice now and kind of put that nightmare behind us and look forward to bring more fans in.”
Until players vote on the deal, which was ratified by the league’s board of governors Wednesday, they’re still on their own as far as workouts and any training goes. Officials from the teams’ organizations aren’t allowed at the workouts, not even medical personnel, so in the ‘Canes’ case, the players are paying for the ice time at Raleigh Center Ice.
They do have access to the small locker room and some of the equipment housed there, but Wednesday’s workout, which was as organized as a regular practice, was led by the players. And not all of the players were there, either. They are straggling into Raleigh and must travel at their own expense, though each will be reimbursed once the agreement is ratified.
Among the players working out on this morning in addition to LaRose and Staal were Staal’s younger brother, Jordan, Anthony Stewart, Justin Faulk, Jeff Skinner, Patrick Dwyer and Tim Gleason.
Conditioning was stressed throughout the workout because most of the players aren’t in game shape yet, and with camp likely being about one week once things are in order, the onus is on the players to be ready.
“It’s tough to be in game shape without playing games,” LaRose said. “But that’s your job, that’s your life. My life is to stay in shape and be ready to play. It’s my job, I’m a professional athlete, so the motivation is never lacking.”
Faulk, an All-Star as a rookie defensemen a year ago, has an edge on most of his teammates because he opted to play with the organization’s minor-league affiliate in Charlotte and has logged 31 games.
Just look at the top several lines of the Checkers’ statistics and it’s loaded with full- or part-time Hurricanes. Zach Boychuk, Zac Dalpe, Drayson Bowman and a few others will have a legitimate edge come camp time.
Being in the grind of a hockey schedule also helped keep them from thinking too much about the lockout and the frustrations associated with it. Faulk said that was a positive.
“Yeah, obviously it’s not out of your mind completely,” he said. “I got to play games, but at the same time, the guys down in Charlotte that did play in games last year you’re kind of looking at it that you’re trying to get ready for when it did happen. At the same time, you kind of got a little extra jump because you’re playing and have been going hard.”
The hope and belief is camp will open Sunday and that Jan. 19 is when the pucks must drop around the NHL to kick off what will likely be a 48-game schedule.
The ‘Canes can’t wait to get going. They struggled last season with a slump by Eric Staal, a lagging concussion that affected Skinner a year after his All-Star rookie campaign and a midseason coaching change. The Hurricanes finished the season 12th in the Eastern Conference, 10 points out of the final playoff spot.
But they kept plugging away and eventually appeared comfortable in new coach Kirk Muller’s system. Carolina went 9-6-2 to close out the season, and the players believe that with some interesting and applauded off-season moves, the team is ready for big things.
“I daydreamed many times driving to work in November and December about playing in front of our fans and seeing some of the new faces that we have,” said Eric Staal, who was a key member of Carolina’s 2006 Stanley Cup-winning club.
“We were excited to go in September … and everyone here is excited, I know our fans are excited as well. We’ve got a good group of guys here, and we finished strong (last season) and our staff is going to have us ready to go. It’s going to be fun.”
Certainly a lot more fun than playing the waiting game.