WINNIPEG — The tension and anxiety were clearly gone from NHLers skating at the MTS Iceplex this morning.
The group, which has been training on its own since the player lockout began on Sept. 15, is clearly eager to start a schedule now that the league and the NHLPA have found agreement on a new 10-year labour deal.
Both sides must ratify it this week and though it’s not confirmed, the season is most likely to start Jan. 19.
Winnipeg Jets centre Bryan Little has been a regular at the Iceplex during the 113-day work stoppage.
"I’m really relieved," Little said this morning. "I tried to keep really quiet throughout the whole thing and let the Don (Fehr) and the union take care of business because as a player, you can’t really control too much when you’re not in the meetings.
"I tried to stay calm. It was a bit of a rollercoaster ride but it’s a huge relief. I was a bit like Christmas morning waking up there Sunday."
Asked what he liked about the deal that was hammered out over the weekend, Little said it was the fairness that appealed to him.
"I kind of like that coming down from 57 (per cent) to 50 was a big commitment from us and I kind of like how we met them halfway," he said. "We kind of gave up a lot, what most fans were upset about that we weren’t going down to 50-50. I’m glad we got there and it seems like everyone’s happy with that."
The end to the dispute almost marked the end of a personal embargo on hockey interviews by new Jets centre Olli Jokinen.
A few days into the lockout, he said he wouldn’t speak again until it was over.
Today, Jokinen entertained questions for a half-hour after the group of five (which included Little, Toby Enstrom, Jim Slater and Dallas’s Ryan Garbutt) was finished.
"It’s been a long three months but as an athlete, you stay and in shape and do everything possible to be ready when you get that email or phone call that the lockout is over," Jokinen said. "I personally can say that I’m in better shape than three months ago. Hopefully a lot of guys are feeling that way and we can start playing and getting some wins."
Jokinen has now survived two NHL lockouts and the personal price tag for those is more than $4 million in salary.
"It’s good we can put that behind us," he said. "The next time I’m not going tok be around, so the term, 10 years, is good.
"It’s embarrassing to be in a position like this, that we’re the sport that every time there’s a CBA that expires, you know there’s going to be a lockout. That’s been the case."
The bonus for Jokinen, he said this morning, was discovering Winnipeg.
"I love it here," he said. "I actually asked my wife about a month ago if the season gets canceled, if they want to go back to Florida and we’ll put the kids in school there.
"Everybody said no, we want to stay here.
"It’s been tough that we had a lockout but at the same time you have to look at the positives out of it and we’ve made a lot of friends outside of hockey and people have been really nice. People are very friendly over here. It’s a great city.
"I didn’t have any expectations of coming in. I didn’t want to listen to every second person who was saying, ‘You’re out of your mind signing in Winnipeg; it’s cold, it’s a bad city.’ You hear a lot of negative stuff about the city if you don’t live here. But once you live here, you’ve got everything you need. People love hockey, there are unbelievable schools, people are friendly. What else can you ask?"