Blues make best of NHL lockout unknowns

CHESTERFIELD, Mo. – In New York, hockey’s power brokers returned to the bargaining table. Here, some St. Louis Blues players wonder what the heck is taking so long.
“Both sides realize the damage that has been done to the game,” Blues winger Andy McDonald said. “It’s imperative that we get a deal done sooner rather than later.”

In New York, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman joined NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr to try to hammer out a deal to end a 52-day lockout. Here, some Blues players joined teammates for a morning skate at a suburban St. Louis rink to prepare for when this nightmare ends.
“You try to block it out of your mind going forward,” Blues defenseman Barret Jackman said. “Yeah, this is a part of the business that none of the guys enjoy.”

There’s business and there’s the headache that comes with it. Tuesday was a mixed-bag moment for life in CBA purgatory. NHL and NHLPA bigwigs met for a second negotiation session in four days, but Blues players carried on like they have since the freeze began in September: Unaware when they’ll play again, their optimism jumping between half full and half empty.
“Cautious optimism,” said Jackman, who had 13 points last season. “Obviously, the talk is good. The negotiations would have to get serious for this to get over soon. You take it day by day and you just try and keep yourself ready and don’t get too high – but be ready if camp’s going to open at the end of the week.”

Here’s the lockout’s dent so far: Fresh fan cynicism after the fourth stoppage in 20 years, 327 games canceled and the Winter Classic scrubbed. That’s not to mention front-office layoffs – the Blues released about 20 people in September – pay cuts among team employees and an all-around sour, no-good, awful time.
Crisis involves a scramble in more ways than one, and some Blues players have tried to make lemonade out of an onion. Those in town have met at Hardee’s Iceplex about three times a week since training camp was scrapped. Tuesday, the 90-minute workout looked like something you’d see at the team’s practice facility in labor peacetime: Twelve men glided through drills with the occasional shout, pucks smacked against glass, goalie Brian Elliott shifted between the pipes like a mountain lion on skates.
But there were differences that reminded you the whole experience was, well, awkward. There was no coach Ken Hitchcock keeping a watchful eye. There was no blue note on the jerseys, players instead wearing black-and-white designs that read, “NHLPA” on the front with “#THEPLAYERS” on the back. Nine bystanders sat in the stands, and some looked more interested in keeping warm than keeping up with the action.
“I think the biggest thing for me is learning about the whole lockout – obviously, this being my first one, there’s a lot to learn behind the scenes and a lot to learn off the ice,” said Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, who had a career-high 51 points last season. “Luckily enough, I have these guys who have been through it before, and they can guide us young guys in the right direction, and we’re all trying to stay involved.”

They stay involved by staying together. McDonald said as many as 20 players have participated in the lockout skates. In a normal year, they would have played the Dallas Stars on Tuesday night at Scottrade Center. In a normal year, they would be 10 games into defense of their Central Division crown, looking to build on gains from a 109-point campaign that produced their second postseason berth in seven years.

Yet this, of course, is far from a normal year. It’s a time most here would rather forget.

“It’s unfortunate,” said McDonald, who had 22 points last season. “It’s really disappointing, because I think the game was in a real good place before this happened, especially in St. Louis, because the team seemed to be picking up and there was a lot of fan support.

“When something like this happens, you hope the fans kind of forgive everybody involved, and I certainly understand everyone’s frustration. They look at a league that has done so well and players who make millions of dollars — and how could there not be an agreement? It has kind of been a reality check.”

The reality check looks like this: Another day with Scottrade Center dark, a Blues schedule near the doors at Hardee’s Iceplex with the first five games stricken off in blue and black marker, players continuing a lockout routine wondering about tomorrow.
The reality check sounds like this: Surprise, frustration, eagerness to see a livelihood return.
“We all grew up playing this sport for the love of it,” Jackman said. “We’ve all worked really hard to get where we are. Just the fact that we aren’t playing right now and it’s all about business – it’s something new to some guys, but (some) guys have been through it a couple times now.”

In New York, hockey’s power brokers tried to find a solution.
Here, there’s one question: Can you hurry already?
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