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CAPITALS: Players Begin Returning With Season Looming

By ZAC BOYER | @ZacBoyer

ARLINGTON – Alex Ovechkin landed at Dulles International Airport on Monday evening, dropped his bright red Washington Capitals bag on a cart and rested a half-dozen hockey sticks on top.

For all the talk and all the chatter over the past few days, Ovechkin’s return served as the most tangible sign of one thing: hockey is back.

Players and owners agreed in principle on a new collective bargaining agreement early Sunday morning, allowing players to finally, after 113 days, report to their team’s headquarters and prepare for the new season.

Ovechkin, the Capitals’ captain, played 31 games in his native Moscow before receiving word the lockout was over. After a day’s preparation, he boarded a flight for Washington, where he was greeted warmly upon his return.

“People like just recognize me and say, ‘Hey, thanks very much for coming back. We can’t wait to see you play,’” he said Tuesday morning at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, where he joined nine teammates in an informal skate. “It means a lot. It means the fans love Caps, love hockey.”

According to multiple reports, both sides are aiming for training camps to open Sunday in advance of an abbreviated 48-game schedule that will not include interconference games. The collective bargaining agreement, not yet entirely finalized, should be ratified by the owners Wednesday and by the players by the end of the week.

There will be numerous challenges associated with starting a season at this point, when the Capitals should be at the exact midpoint of a regular 82-game schedule. Amongst the chief concerns is the health and fitness of the players, many of whom will be rushed into the grind of a rigorous schedule.

“There are going to be a lot of unknowns here,” said Capitals general manager George McPhee. “No one knows what this is going to look like – who’s in shape, who’s not, who gets out to a fast start, who doesn’t. It’s going to be like 48 playoff games but really unpredictable. We don’t know how people are going to play, and I guess that’s what’s going to make it exciting.”

McPhee crafted the Capitals’ current roster before the lockout officially began Sept. 15, which allows the team to immediately sink into the nuances of learning new head coach Adam Oates’ offense-oriented system.

Oates, a former Capitals winger who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in November, was hired by the team in June to replace Dale Hunter.

A first-time head coach at any level, Oates spent a portion of the season coaching with Washington’s top minor league affiliate in Hershey to acclimate himself with several of the Capitals’ younger players.

Excited to get to work, he received word the lockout ended Sunday at 5 a.m. – roughly 15 minutes after an agreement was announced – and was in his office a half-hour later.

“That’s been one of the toughest things as a hockey man – we haven’t been tired,” Oates said. “When you play a season the game is at 7 o’clock at night, you get home at midnight, [and] when you’re on the road you get home at two in the morning. The next day you’re dragging a little bit. I mean, we haven’t been tired for three months. We’re out of our minds.”

Because a collective bargaining agreement hasn’t officially been ratified, McPhee said the restrictions on both sides aren’t entirely defined. Before Tuesday, players could practice at KCI, but they had to pay to reserve the ice like any other customer. Oates, for one, took caution in speaking to his players, understanding that he wasn’t allowed to address them as a group.

That could happen shortly. And while Ovechkin enjoyed playing in Russia for the first time since a lockout eliminated the entire 2004-05 season, even he is relieved to return to the NHL.

“Sometimes you just think, ‘Why we do that?’” Ovechkin said, referring to the lockout. “But it’s over, so I’m happy to be back. It was hard time, but I think everybody miss hockey so badly right now. It’s nice to be back.”


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