JIM Slater makes no secret he'd much rather be up close and personal with teammates and fans at the MTS Centre these days.
But as a locked-out NHL player, he's not interested in moping time while the league's labour impasse drags past its first month.
Slater, for instance, used a weekend visit from his family to do something just a little out of the ordinary -- they all went to Churchill and got up close and personal with polar bears.
"We were in the buggy, but probably close, about 15 feet," Slater said Monday after skating with some of his teammates at the MTS Iceplex. "It was cool. It was quite an experience. I had a great time.
"It was cool to see them in their natural habitat. It's fun to try to find them ... when you see them, it's a full-day thing and when you actually see one, it's kind of crazy how excited everybody gets.
"It was a great time."
Slater came away from the province's northern port more than impressed, calling it a "pretty special place."
"In the Free Press before I went, there was an article that I was going and people kind of knew I was coming," he smiled. "At the airport and throughout town, people were talking about hockey.
"They love their hockey up there. They have a nice little rink up there for the town. It's a small Canadian city and just like every other small Canadian city, they love their hockey."
The native of Lapeer, Mich., played games in Alaska during his college days, but checked the weekend visit off a list of things to do.
"Touching Hudson Bay, I've never done that before," he said. "And seeing polar bears eating different things you don't normally eat, it was a cool experience, especially spending it with your family.
"And everybody there was so generous, so nice and so willing to help."
IceCaps split first 2 games
THROUGH the opening weekend of their second AHL season, the St. John's IceCaps got two things out of the way.
They split a pair of road games -- rarely a bad thing -- and shook off a little rust.
"You could tell the first night we haven't had much game time together," said IceCaps GM Craig Heisinger, who witnessed the team's 4-2 loss in Springfield, Mass., and 3-2 win in Hartford, Conn., against Connecticut. "We certainly were better in Hartford (on Sunday)."
There, Spencer Machacek scored the winner in the third period.
Heisinger, also the Winnipeg Jets assistant GM, said forward Alex Burmistrov, who has already played two full-time NHL seasons, was just fine over the weekend. He had two assists on Sunday.
"But our best players continued to be the best players during training camp, and that's Max Macenauer (a goal Sunday) and Zach Redmond (also a goal Sunday)," Heisinger said. "And both of our goalies (Eddie Pasquale and Mark Dekanich) were good in those games."
Ten skaters at Iceplex
THERE was some uncertainty about the longevity of the local group of locked-out Jets and NHLers who skate two or three times a week.
All of the AHL and other-league participants have gone off to their seasons but the group was 10 skaters strong and got a healthy endorsement Monday with the appearances of L.A. Kings' Mike Richards and New Jersey Devils' Travis Zajac.
Richards was at the MTS Iceplex for the workout for the first time and Zajac has returned.
"It's better for family reasons here and there's more guys here," Zajac said. "And having a coach (Focus Fitness's J.P. Vigier) run the ice is big; it keeps things fresh and it keeps us entertained out there and working hard. J.P. has been great for us."
Zajac said the 2011-12 escrow money coming back to the players in the next few days should be no factor in the lockout's length.
"I'd still rather be playing," he said. "Getting escrow back or not getting it back, I'd rather be on the ice.
"It's a tough situation, obviously. I feel for the fans. This does not make it easier for fans to come back and watch us play and support us. You feel for them. As players, we just want to get back on the ice and get those fans supporting us."