CANONSBURG, Pa. - Brooks Orpik had a good reason to head back to Pittsburgh after spending the first three months of the NHL lockout in Massachusetts, and the Penguins defenceman insists it had nothing to do with optimism he and the rest of his teammates are closer to getting back to work.
"I didn't have snow tires on my car, so I was like, 'If I wait this out any longer I'm going to get stuck here and not have a car down in Pittsburgh,'" Orpik said. "It was really just a change of scenery."
Orpik wasn't alone. He carpooled down to Pittsburgh with Tyler Kennedy, and a little bit of peer pressure convinced forward James Neal to join the handful of Penguins who have been working out regularly at the regional ice rink that serves as the team's practice facility.
"It's just something different to stimulate you," Orpik said.
Orpik had been working out with players in the Boston area, monitoring negotiations and attempting to stay sharp. Things felt a little different, however, while skating alongside his teammates for the first time since Pittsburgh lost to Philadelphia in the first round of the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs.
Having Sidney Crosby around may something to do with it. The captain has been a fixture at the workouts and having 15 players in all — including a couple of non-Penguins — allowed Crosby and company to pick up the pace a little bit.
Crosby has served as the de facto organizer for the drills and is eager to get his career back underway after struggling with concussion-like symptoms for most of the last two years. He attended three days of marathon negotiations between owners and players in New York last week, though he has no plans to be around when talks resume.
While Crosby has long since stopped guessing when the NHL's third labour dispute under Commissioner Gary Bettman's watch will end, he remains hopeful hockey will return at some point.
"The fact that they're talking is good and I think we've all said that throughout this process, it's better than sitting around and not knowing what everyone is thinking," Crosby said.
Spending three days at the bargaining table, however, tempered any sense a deal was imminent. The league has cancelled games through Dec. 30 and there are still a myriad of concerns that need to be addressed.
"There's a lot of details, a lot of things that go into a CBA and those haven't even been starting to be talked about," Crosby said. "We definitely have some work to do there but I'm sure once all the major things get taken care of, hopefully the process gets a little easier."
Crosby estimated the league would need a couple of weeks to get through a brief training camp while cramming in a couple of exhibitions. The long layoff has left him refreshed and while he's crisscrossed the country over the last couple months — he's attended player camps in Colorado and Arizona — there's nothing quite like lacing up the skates alongside the players who know you better than most.
"I think the one thing that's the same all the way through is that guys are trying to do their best to stay ready and they're trying to make the best of the situation," Crosby said. "That says a lot about guys and their care level. Guys want to make sure that when and if this does get settled, we're ready to go."
So Crosby will keep showing up at the practice rink four days a week. He will keep trying to make things fresh. Tuesday's turnout was encouraging, sure, but it's also part of an ebb and flow that's been typical since the lockout began.
There have been days when only a handful of players show up. While that can make it difficult at times to get motivated, it hasn't stopped Crosby from showing up, even if instead of a packed house at Consol Energy Center it's a sprinkling of fans, folks working at a gym located over one end of the ice and facility employees.
Asked if there's a scenario when Crosby decided it's time to call his teammates and tell them to skip it, and the game's biggest star just shakes his head.
"That's not going to happen," Crosby said. "If nobody's here, then either everyone has taken a day off right before camp starts or we're not playing."
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