The Buffalo Sabres will be back on the ice this week. The word that players have waited to hear since mid-September – that the NHL lockout was over and the season was saved – finally filtered through the team Sunday.
“I stayed cautiously optimistic through the whole process,” new Sabres forward Steve Ott, acquired over the summer from Dallas for Derek Roy, told The News by phone Sunday from his home in Windsor, Ont. “You got excited a couple times and then the wheels fell off, and you had to wait some more and hope there was a breakthrough. I'm just completely excited to get back on the ice and be in Buffalo as soon as possible.”
Goaltender Ryan Miller was asleep, like much of North America, when the end of the lockout was announced at 5:45 a.m. Eastern time.
Wrote Miller in a text to The News from Southern California: “I learned of the deal when I woke up to my wife saying, 'Yay, it's over.' ”
Defenseman Mike Weber tweeted a picture of his Sabres duffel bag, a suitcase and some clothes with the notation: “Fastest pack I've ever completed #gameon #seeyouinbuffalo.” He also tweeted thanks to the Windsor Spitfires for allowing him to train in his former junior home and to Lorenskog, the team he played for in the Norwegian league.
Weber had returned to Windsor for the holidays and to wait to see if the lockout would end before a potential return to Norway.
Backup goaltender Jhonas Enroth tweeted in Swedish (translated via Google), “Troubled that it has taken such a time, but damn right fun to start running again now!”
Enroth is currently playing in his homeland and will have to join several other teammates in making a beeline back to Buffalo for camp in the next couple of days.
Enroth later tweeted in English: “Finally! Excited to get back to #beautifulbuffalo and start playing in the NHL again! Can't wait!”
Ott said he was pressing forward with workouts, trying not to ponder the fact the NHL's deadline to get a deal and prevent cancellation of the season was less than a week away.
“It's been nerve-wracking,” he said. “I've wanted a chance to prove myself to my teammates and the Buffalo community and now it's finally upon us.”
The Sabres' front office, including President Ted Black and General Manager Darcy Regier, was waiting for instructions from the NHL before communicating to fans and media specifics about the coming season. Some of those particulars, including ticketing, scheduling and training camp, could be revealed today.
In the short term, the Sabres have some immediate questions to answer on the ice in the wake of the lockout's conclusion.
Once the new CBA is ratified, the Sabres will certainly call up winger Marcus Foligno and center Cody Hodgson from Rochester to rejoin the NHL club.
In addition, defenseman T.J. Brennan – the Amerks' leading scorer and a former second-round draft pick – will need to clear waivers to continue playing in the AHL and that may not happen because of his strong season. So the Sabres would need to add Brennan to an already large logjam on defense.
The Sabres are also short at center and it's possible that No. 1 draft choice Mikhail Grigorenko may get a nine-game tryout rather than return immediately to junior hockey in the wake of his strong performance at the World Junior tournament that ended Saturday in Ufa, Russia.
Grigorenko has 29 goals and 50 points in 30 games with the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, and a French newspaper in Quebec reported last month the Sabres had already agreed to keep Grigorenko in juniors for the season regardless of the lockout's conclusion. It will be interesting to see if the Sabres revisit their thoughts on the 18-year-old, given the fact he's already in strong shape coming off an elite international tournament.
The Sabres also will have to ascertain the health of some of their players. Defenseman Tyler Myers missed nearly a month of play in Austria with an ankle injury and just returned to the ice Friday night, scoring a shootout winning goal for his team. Center Tyler Ennis left Switzerland because of a shoulder injury and has been seen skating at the Northtown Center in Amherst. Winger Nathan Gerbe's status is also a question mark after an offseason procedure, believed to be on his back.
It will be interesting to see the conditioning of the rest of the roster as well. Only a few players have been skating in Amherst, with the rest returning to other cities or, in the case of Miller, attending NHLPA camps for players in places like Phoenix.
“I've tried to stay in the best shape possible and guys are pretty professional,” Ott said.
“We all wanted this day to come. Everybody ramped up the last two weeks to prepare for a season, knowing it was going to happen or it was going to be ended. You want to prepare like it would happen and make sure we're ready to go.”
Miller said the players have plenty of work to do on the ice – and plenty to do off it to regain the passion of fans who may have been lost by another work stoppage.
“Now that we have games on the schedule we just need some fans,” Miller said in an email Sunday to the Toronto Globe & Mail. “I know an apology doesn't make it all better, but it's a place to start. I'm sorry and I hope that fans will forgive us for the role we played in this lockout. We will show up ready to play if they want to come to the rink and watch.”
Miller said the players remained united behind union Executive Director Donald Fehr throughout the process and felt they got the best deal they could.
wAlthough they knew Fehr was in charge of baseball's players union when the World Series was canceled by a strike in 1994, they were also aware the sport is pushing 20 years of labor peace since then.
“I think Don was great,” Miller wrote to The News. “I know a lot of people were judging him based on baseball but in this situation he did what was right for us in this situation.
“He listened and considered our opinion and gave the players all the information available. Part of business at a multi-billion dollar level is to take every advantage you can. There is a lot of misinformation out there about Don but from my side he was honest and professional and he cared.”
The work of Fehr and Commissioner Gary Bettman, combined with a huge assist from federal mediation, avoided another nuclear winter for the NHL. In less than two weeks, the Sabres will open a 48- or 50-game season Ott referred to as “a complete sprint.”
Upon learning the lockout was over, Bills wide receiver David Nelson tweeted to Ott, “Congrats on the season brother! Can't wait to see you tear it up.”
Responded Ott: “Thanks Man, can't wait to have some fun in B-Lo.”