Proud players thrilled that hockey is back

Flyers All-Star Claude Giroux received the wakeup call he waited

to hear for 113 days.

Locked out for months, the NHL was indeed ready to drop the

puck.

”It’s a beautiful day for Hockey,” he posted Sunday on

Twitter.

Call the overseas players and tell them to come on home to New

Jersey and Pennsylvania and other states where the NHL only existed

in the form of messy labor updates. The NHL and the players’

association agreed on a tentative pact to end the lockout and save

what is left of a fractured schedule.

Let the training camps begin.

”I’m ready to play,” Flyers veteran defenseman Kimmo Timonen

said. ”We’re just waiting for the season to get started. It’s been

a long four months.”

But, finally, fans can stop thinking about board rooms and

talking heads dressed in suits. Rather, it’s time to get ready for

Sid the Kid. It’s time for the Los Angeles Kings to go defend the

Stanley Cup. It’s time to watch your team play, oh, about four

times per week.

Sure, the Winter Classic was wiped out. The All-Star game went

bust.

But at 48 or 50 games, it’s still hockey at the highest

level.

One of the questions that arises now, of course, and after any

sort of stoppage for that matter, is will the fans come back? This

is the third labor dispute in Commissioner Gary Bettman’s tenure,

and though the fans returned in the past, the jury is out this

time.

NHL fan Steve Chase started the grass roots ”Just Drop It”

campaign that encouraged fans to skip one NHL game for every game

canceled after Dec. 21st. He asked fans to pledge they would not

spend a penny or a minute of their time on tickets, TV,

merchandise, all things NHL.

Nearly 21,000 fans had clicked the ”like” button on the

group’s Facebook page by Sunday afternoon. And Chase, who lives in

Los Angeles, wrote on the site he would stay true to his

commitment.

”AS IT STANDS RIGHT NOW: Games canceled from Dec 21 to Jan 14th

average out to 10 per team,” he wrote. ”They took 10 from us,

we’ll take 10 from them. No tickets, no TV, no merchandise.”

Chase said there was growing sentiment among his friends to skip

the entire season. He said the league and players didn’t think

enough about the part-time employees and local businesses who

needed the sport to help survive the winter months.

”Look at all the bars around the rinks and all the shops that

sold jerseys. They’re all getting killed,” he said by phone. ”We

kept promoting, go to those bars and buy pizza. Keep them going.

When hockey comes back, you’re going to want somewhere to go.”

At downtown Detroit’s Rub BBQ Pub, manager Chris Eid said he was

”ecstatic” when he heard the news Sunday morning. And the

settlement and the promise of a return to NHL action was a big

topic of conversation among his afternoon customers, he said.

”Everyone misses hockey,” Eid said. ”And now we’re getting it

back.”

Many of the NHL players can understand the chilly reception from

the fans.

”To the fans that won’t come back, I can understand,” Phoenix

Coyotes forward Paul Bissonnette wrote on Twitter. ”To the ones

that will, thank you for your patience. Welcome back NHL

hockey.”

Amid the realization they’ll have to repair the damaged

relationship with the die-hards, Flyers chairman Ed Snider told The

Associated Press he hoped the fans returned to support the

league.

”I’m hoping that our fans understand this was something that

had to be done for the strength of the league, for the strength of

the Players Association,” Snider said by phone. ”I hope they

don’t hold it against us and just come out and see some great

hockey. If I had to guess, I think we’re going to be in great

shape.”

The Nashville Predators encouraged fans to wear team colors on

Monday in a show of solidarity. Tennessee Titans quarterback Matt

Hasselbeck tweeted, ”Welcome back!” at a trio of Predators.

It won’t be a rosy return for every player. The New Jersey

Devils have four players still overseas, including star forward

Ilya Kovalchuk, who could well become the team’s captain now that

forward Zach Parise is in Minnesota. Giroux (neck) and his Flyers

teammate, forward Danny Briere (wrist), were injured in their

European stints. Giroux is expected to be ready for training camp.

Briere’s status is unknown.

The players have been locked out since Sept. 16, the day after

the previous agreement expired. That deal came after an extended

lockout that wiped out the entire 2004-05 season.

Coyotes captain Shane Doan said the players agreed to the best

deal it could thanks to union executive director Donald Fehr.

”From being in the room quite a bit, there was a sense this was

the best deal available,” he said in New York. ”It’s always tough

because we’re all fans of the game and we wish we didn’t have to go

through this. But we did, and we’re on the other side now.”

All games through Jan. 14 had already been canceled, claiming

more than 50 percent of the original schedule. Teams will hold a

brief training camp, maybe a week, before starting at least a

48-game season.

”Training camp, usually you do three days then you start

exhibition games,” Flyers forward Max Talbot said. ”I believe

it’s enough. Sometimes training camp is too long. It’s nice to get

in the action. Forty-eight games in a little bit of time … I

think it would be exciting.”

The Flyers, Bruins and the Sidney Crosby-led Penguins were among

the teams that worked out on their own, some paying for ice time at

their team’s own practice rinks.

Bruins captain Zdeno Chara was set to return to North America

this week after playing for Prague Lev of the KHL. The Russian

league was a popular landing spot for locked-out players, who

decided the structure – and payday – was worth the risk of injury

as they waited out the dispute.

”It was fun, it was great to be doing the practices and being

with my (Bruins) teammates,” Chara, a defenseman, said. ”At the

same time, it wasn’t organized hockey under some kind of a system

and schedule. That’s why I choose to go to Europe and play over

here.”

Well, he can pack his sticks and catch a plane. That practice

ice time price is about to get slashed to ”free.”

Flyers forward Jody Shelley said teammate Scott Hartnell gave

him the good news the lockout was about over via a text at 5:30

a.m. Sunday. Shelley expected more of his teammates to trickle in

this week to the Flyers’ New Jersey training facility.

”We can get back as a group, get back as a team,” he said.

”We’re the Philadelphia Flyers. That’s what we want to be, all of

us. We left there last May and we couldn’t wait to get back in

September and get at it.

Four months later, it’s time to play. Finally.

Game on.

AP Sports Writer Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Tenn.,

contributed to this report.

Follow Dan Gelston at www.twitter.com/APGelston