ST. PAUL, Minn. — For the past several months, members of the Minnesota Wild spent time skating together at various rinks around the Twin Cities to stay in shape during the NHL lockout. On Monday, the Wild finally were able to get back onto the ice at Xcel Energy Center and skate as a team, not as a collection of locked-out players.
There was no hiding their excitement, either.
“I think you see the smiles on the boys’ faces today,” said Wild forward Kyle Brodziak. “Everyone just wants to play. It’s been our whole life. Usually September comes and it’s hockey time. When you don’t get that for a couple months, you miss it and you realize how good we have it. It’s definitely exciting to be back though.”
In all, 18 Wild players took part in a one-hour practice led by local skating instructor Andy Ness. Since the agreement between the NHL and the players’ association has yet to be ratified, Wild coach Mike Yeo couldn’t take part in Monday’s skate, but he and general manager Chuck Fletcher did watch from the concourse of the Xcel Energy Center.
What they saw was a team antsy to get the season started — even though the schedule will yield a shortened season, likely 48 games. But that certainly beats the alternative of no season at all, which some players felt was a possibility at times when negotiations turned sour.
“At some point, for sure you’re thinking maybe we’re not going to play this year. It looks pretty bad,” said Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom. “Maybe deep inside you had a feeling all the time that we’re going to play hockey. There’s no way we can lose another season. We lost enough games.”
Absent from Monday’s skate were forward Dany Heatley, captain Mikko Koivu and top prospect Mikael Granlund, among a few others. The rest of the Wild players are expected to return to Minnesota within the next few days as the team gears up for what will be an abbreviated training camp.
Given the short preseason, that might make it tough for teams to develop chemistry early on. The Wild added several pieces to the puzzle this offseason, including highly sought-after free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. Monday was the first time those two skated with many Minnesota players, although Parise stayed in town during the lockout to take part in skates with some of his teammates.
Still, the Wild are confident that things will click fairly easy.
“We don’t have long, but obviously over time the chemistry thing will come,” Suter said. “We have a lot of talent. Now we just have to put it together. Once everyone gets here, we can start doing that and just start learning the system and get familiar with each other. It’s going to be an exciting year.”
News that the lockout was over broke early Sunday morning after talks between the NHL and the NHLPA spilled over from late Saturday night. Some of the Wild players were scattered around the world for the past several months, playing for various minor league or European teams during the lockout.
That included Devin Setoguchi, who spent time with the ECHL’s Ontario Reign. Like his teammates, Setoguchi got the good news early Sunday.
“I woke up to a phone call, and then my phone kept going off the whole day,” he said. “We knew we were close. We were well informed from the (players’ association) throughout the whole lockout and up to date on what was going on. It was nice to see that something was mutually agreed upon.”
Many Wild players acknowledged Monday that they’ll have to do some reconciling with fans who either lost interest in the league during the lockout or were upset with how the negotiations were handled by both sides. While the players admitted that apologies to the fans are necessary, they also know that getting back on the ice will be the best way to fix it.
After all, the players weren’t the only ones affected by the lockout.
“I hope the fans can forgive us at some point. They were the people around the rink,” Backstrom said. “Hockey just doesn’t hurt the players. It hurts so many other people that are part of hockey. That’s the thing that sucks with this.
“I hope we’re done now with the lockout and we don’t have to use that word anymore in hockey.”