CANDIAC, Que. - The talks have heated up and a deal could soon be at hand, but NHL players are trying not to let their hopes get too high that a collective bargaining agreement will get signed and a partial season will be saved.
A group of eight NHL players skating at a suburban arena Wednesday were glad that their Players' Association and the league have been talking over the last few days in New York. But they caution that the NHLPA thought a deal was close only a month ago, only to see commissioner Gary Bettman withdraw his offer.
"Yes, we're excited, but I hope it's not like last time when we were all excited and then the next thing you know, it's off the table," said forward Steve Begin. "But you have to stay positive.
"Every time they were talking I thought they'd get something done, but now I think it's time. They've got 10 more days. I think they'll get something done."
Begin has not played since he was cut from the Vancouver Canucks' camp before the 2011-12 season. He does not have a contract, but is awaiting the chance to crack the Calgary Flames' roster during what may be a short training camp.
The league wants a deal done by Jan. 11 so that a 48-game schedule can start on Jan. 19. The threat of losing an entire season, as happened in 2004-05, looks to have lit a fire under the negotiations.
"I've got excited before and I'm not going to get excited until a deal is signed," cautioned Montreal Canadiens captain Brian Gionta.
"We're looking forward because it's getting late," said Canucks forward Alex Burrows. "We're in the new year now, so we have to make sure they keep talking and find a way to grind it out and agree on a few things."
Gionta was joined by teammates Josh Gorges, Travis Moen and Francis Boullion, along with Begin, Burrows, Vancouver forward Maxim Lapierre and Washington Capitals defenceman Roman Hamrlik for 90 minutes of drills to stay in shape in case the lockout ends. New York Rangers prospect Nick Tremblay also skated.
Similar groups have been doing the same in arenas across North America since the lockout started in mid-September, as players wait for word on whether games will resume.
Gionta said skating and doing gym work without the thrill of playing in games can get monotonous, but "it's no different from (skating) in the summer. It's just a mental grind."
"It's more frustrating than anything," added Moen. "But let's keep our fingers crossed that we get something done and get back to playing."
The 38-year-old Hamrlik, locked out for the third time in his career, has been cast as the villain by some for questioning why NHLPA boss Donald Fehr didn't begin negotiations earlier so that the season could be saved.
That drew some angry reactions from some players who felt he betrayed the union, although others said he is free to say what he thinks.
Hamrlik said he just wants to play hockey again.
"It's really frustrating," he said. "I'm probably one of the most frustrated guys now.
"It's just eating you alive. You want to be out there. You want to play the game. The older guys don't have too much time left. I think there's only 14 guys in the same situation I'm in. We want to play, to enjoy the game and win the Cup. In 2004, there were older guys that missed a season and they never played again."
Hamrlik said he supports the NHLPA and is confident Fehr will get a deal done, but hasn't backed off his comments, which included that earlier league offers should have been put to a vote.
"I talked to some guys and some disagree and some agree, but they don't necessarily want to go to you guys (reporters) and say the truth or say what they think," he said. "I earned the right to say what I think.
"But it's not about me or what anyone said. It's about compromise and making a fair deal on both sides, bringing the fans back and having fun playing the game."
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