For the first time in a long time, Buffalo Sabres players skating at the Northtown Center of Amherst were smiling Monday. They were still wearing sweaters from the NHL Players’ Association and not their team but at least they now know that will change in a few days when training camp finally opens.
But some of the smiles went away for a few minutes when reporters questioned players on the apparent end of the NHL lockout, which will become official when the players and the league’s Board of Governors ratify the deal later this week. Winger Thomas Vanek was particularly downcast about what’s gone on the last four months.
“I think this whole lockout was stupid,” Vanek said. “I think it should have been settled before the season started and we should have played 82 games but you can’t change the past. You move on. Do I like what happened? No. But again, it is what it was, which was sad. I’m just glad we settled and at least we can play hockey this year.”
Vanek said flatly the 113-day lockout wasn’t worth it.
“I think we could have settled the same deal months ago,” he said. “But was it necessary? Yeah. Because they weren’t willing to negotiate. So that’s the sad part about it. … You look way back at the first offer (43 percent of hockey-related revenue, compared to the 57 percent the players were getting), and it’s like, ‘Where do we start?’ That’s where it all started going south so early, which was not good.”
Defenseman Jordan Leopold, who has served as the Sabres’ player representative during the talks, tried to put a happier face on the situation.
“Guys were a little bit more energetic today,” he said. “It’s been an interesting, what? Four months now? We’re excited to go back to work, excited to see the fans again. I hate to say this but I’m actually excited to see you guys here.”
That drew a good laugh but Leopold admitted players have a long way to go to get back in fans’ good graces.
“The product will sell itself. Once we get back out there, we have to put a good product out,” he said. “I’ve been in this league since 2002. Two work stoppages. It hurts. Hurts to your career, hurts financially in all different aspects, especially with the people who come to the rink and watch us every day. We have to go out and put a good product and win back their hearts too.”
Vanek and Leopold were joined on the ice by Tyler Ennis, Matt Ellis, Drew Stafford, Ville Leino, Mike Weber, Patrick Kaleta and newcomer Steve Ott. Ex-Sabre Martin Biron, now with the New York Rangers, and two amateur players served as goalies. Former enforcer Andrew Peters ran the drills.
Vanek, who was scheduled to make $6.4 million this season in the sixth year of his seven-year deal, said the players and owners need to show fans they’re working to slowly rebuild their relationship. It won’t be easy, especially when he noted the NHL “showed no respect again” to the players with a late change last week regarding penalties for clubs caught hiding hockey-related revenue.
“At the end of the day, the players love the game and you hope there’s enough owners that love it, and I’m sure they do,” Vanek said. “And we have 8-10 years [the length of the new CBA] to work on it. You start with small steps. It’s an industry. They need us, we need them and we’ve got to find a common ground.”
In other news:
• The Sabres confirmed that No. 1 draft pick Mikhail Grigorenko has been invited to training camp in the wake of his outstanding showing for Russia in the World Junior Championships. Grigorenko, 18, has 50 points in 30 games for Quebec of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
The 6-foot-3 Grigorenko can play up to nine NHL games without kicking in the first year of his entry-level contract. The Sabres can return him to junior at any time during that stretch or decide to keep him in the NHL, as they did with Tyler Myers in his 2009-10 Calder Trophy season.
• Sabres president Ted Black issued a statement on the team’s Web site, thanking fans for their patience during the lockout and promising quick resolution regarding season tickets and individual-game sales once the league releases a schedule.
• Ennis said his shoulder is 100 percent healthy to start the season. Ennis was injured while playing in Switzerland and returned to Buffalo for treatment.
• Leopold said he expects the entire team to be in town by the weekend, including the players who are still in Europe.
“They’re eager to get back,” Leopold said. “[Ratification] is a process that will take a little bit. We can’t just snap our fingers and have everybody here but the good news is that by the end of the weekend, hopefully things will be signed, sealed, delivered.”