HAMILTON, Ontario -- They are like kids in the candy store as they grab their sticks and stake out a position to do a little carpentry before the Four-on-Four Challenge charity match at Copps Coliseum.
"It's what we do," said New Jersey Devil Scott Stevens. "You get your Bunsen burner going, and it just feels so good. Out here, elbow to elbow with the guys, sharing stories and jokes. It's really what hockey is about. It's a good feeling."
Until this three-day tournament began Thursday, most of the 56 National Hockey League players here had not played competitively since training camp ended more than six weeks ago and the NHL lockout began.
"We've been doing this all our lives," said Quebec's Joe Sakic as he massaged the heel of his hockey stick. "It's frustrating when you can't put the equipment on, when you're not allowed to play. Putting the sweater on here and going out there on this ice for a good cause and hearing the fans cheer, it brings back clearly what we've been missing."
The tournament, which will end tonight, is expected to earn about $1 million for the Ronald McDonald Children's Charities of Canada.
If they have to wile away time waiting for the NHL and the NHLPA to come to a collective bargaining agreement, the players agree that helping a good cause is the best way to do it.
But they also admit that they are getting something personal out of this.
Philadelphia's Gary Galley, who "hasn't seen the fall in 13 years," admitted that a lot of players signed up just because they wanted to don the uniform and fill their need for competition.
As Florida Panthers goalie John Vanbiesbrouck assembled his gear before last night's game, he handled each piece of his uniform with care.
"You have to put it on the right way every time," he said, reaching for his knee sleeves. "It becomes the signal in your brain that it's time to button down the hatches. I think we've all missed the nervous feeling that comes with the final act of slipping on the jersey."
The jerseys here are not NHL team jerseys. They say Western Canada, United States, Ontario and Quebec, but the feeling that comes to each man in his respective locker room is the same as in the NHL.
"Putting this jersey on has filled a huge void," said St. Louis forward Brendan Shanahan, who is considering going to college, for the first time, to study history.
"This has been the first fall that I haven't played hockey since I was 4 years old. When Oct. 15 came and went, I think guys realized we have to move on with our lives, and we're doing that. But putting the jersey on . . . "
Putting the jersey on, said Edmonton's Jason Arnott, "is probably the best feeling ever."
And then he pulled the white Ontario jersey over his head and grinned.
"It goes on nice," he said. "Very nice."