Dale Hunter is happy to be back. He hasn't been on the ice for the start of a regular season in two years.
He missed the beginning of the 1993-94 season because of a 21-game suspension (the longest in NHL history) for a late hit and, after returning for one game, missed 11 more with a knee injury.
This season, he was ready to go, but the owners decreed a lockout that lasted 103 days, and ended only when the NHL and the NHL Players' Association reached a new, tentative collective bargaining agreement that was ratified yesterday afternoon.
So yesterday, as everyone around him was talking about the unique situation the NHL is in, about missing half a season and about the Capitals having to start at full speed Jan. 21 at Hartford, Hunter was telling his teammates not to worry.
"An unusual situation?" he repeated, wide-eyed. "Are you kidding? This is when I usually start the season. Doesn't everyone?"
In fact, while the NHL season will be 34 games shorter this season, Hunter missed 32 before joining his teammates for any length of time last season and knows what it takes to stay in shape and be ready to play when not competing.
"I think we're all in good shape and after a week of hard training we'll be tiptop," said the team captain. "A lot of our guys skated here and I was in touch with guys who weren't here and I know they worked hard. Our work ethic was good and it's going to pay off.
"But the biggest feeling right now is relief. It's good to be back because this is what we do."
The NHL and the NHLPA finally held their joint news conference at 4:20 yesterday afternoon, presenting "a legal, binding document" that was not the official collective bargaining agreement, but a guarantee the season will begin.
"When I got up this morning and realized it was Friday the 13th, I was concerned about it being an ominous day," said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. "Instead, I'm pleased the players ratified the agreement and I'm convinced the future is as bright as it ever has been. . . . I'm delighted to have this process over with and I can't wait to go to my first game."
The count of the players' vote will not be known until possibly as late as Monday. But NHLPA spokesman Steve McCallister said that as of yesterday evening, 85 percent of the players had voted to ratify. And NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow said the new six-year agreement received a majority vote from each of the 26 teams.
The regular season will begin next Friday and each team will play 48 games in 104 days, which means one game every 2.17 days.
In a normal 84-game schedule, teams play an average of one game every 2.27 days. The Capitals' game in Hartford is the start of a three-game road trip.
"This is the beginning," said Capitals forward Michal Pivonka. "It will be hard, but everyone will be in the same shape."
And as Dimitri Khristich points out, "We are not exhausted for a change going into this time of year. Instead we are hungry now to play. It will be good."
Capitals coach Jim Schoenfeld has a seven-day practice plan to get his team in shape for the opener.
"Timing is the most important thing we have to work on going into the season," said Schoenfeld. "We can't condition our team in a week, but we can work at sharpening our skills to the point where they're as fine as they can be when the season starts."
The Capitals' practice at 4 this afternoon will be open to the public. They will skate for about 50 minutes, take a break, scrimmage and then do off-ice conditioning.
L "It will be high-tempo but not a marathon," Schoenfeld said.
Only defensemen Jim Johnson and Calle Johansson had not made it back for yesterday's informal workout. But other Capitals were looking forward to Schoenfeld's famous sweat-inducing workouts.
"We've anticipated being back at practice about five times," said Capitals goalie Don Beaupre. "Over three months our emotions have been up and down and now we're finally all together and here to play.
"You know, when the season is over, or you're not playing, or your career is over, you may remember a game or two, but what you really remember is what happens with the guys. I think we're all happy to be back here, together and about to start the season."