(MCT) — CHICAGO — It happened while most of them were sleeping. Though for one, the news arrived right before he stepped onto the ice half a world away.
The email sent from the NHL players association early Sunday morning that informed the Blackhawks and the rest of the league’s players that a tentative agreement to end the 113-day lockout had been reached set off a whirlwind of activity — and emotions.
“I’m excited to play hockey again, although it’s bittersweet because a lot of damage was done to our game,” Hawks captain Jonathan Toews said via text. “As players we need to keep showing our fans we care. We might have a long road ahead of us there, but for now it’s great to know we’ll be back on the ice very soon.”
Exactly how soon is still being determined, but barring any last-minute hiccups in the legalese included in a new collective bargaining agreement, the Hawks know they will embark on a truncated season within two weeks.
“For the players and the fans it’s great news,” center Dave Bolland said. “I got up in the morning and my phone was going crazy. It was great to see that, and it will be great to get back on the ice.
“It showed it could have been done a long time ago ... but you know how long these things take with lawyers and mediators. But everybody’s happy right now.”
Viktor Stalberg, who opted to play in Europe during the lockout, arrived at an arena in Russia and found out his regular job many times zones away was about reappear. The winger played in Atlant’s 1-0 overtime loss to Minsk in the KHL before hustling to his apartment to start packing for a trip to Chicago.
“Some part of me kind of kept saying, ‘It’s going to get done somehow,’ ” said Stalberg, who plans to return Tuesday after a stop in his native Sweden. “We were not that far apart and it’s not worth losing a season over it, and clearly both sides felt that too.”
The next step in the process is for both the league’s board of governors and union to vote for ratification of a new 10-year CBA. Once that happens, a shortened training camp will be followed by a 48- or 50-game season.
“We appreciate the fans’ patience and we look forward to both the owners and players ratifying the handshake agreement,” Hawks Chairman Rocky Wirtz told the Tribune in his first public statement about the lockout since it began Sept. 15.
While no snafus are expected to hold up the process, Hawks defenseman Steve Montador — a member of the NHLPA’s negotiating committee — wasn’t prepared to fully embrace the agreement until the ink is dry.
“(Not) until we have something that says this is what the deal is going to look like and it’s in writing and signed off on both sides will I feel the lockout will have ended,” Montador said. “We all want to make sure what is tentatively agreed upon is what’s actually agreed upon. The process moved along pretty quickly in the last couple of days and it’s gotten a lot of people excited and that’s a good thing.”
Added Toews: “I’m really happy this is over. A lot of credit goes to the players who were in the bargaining sessions and worked very hard to get a deal done.”
If everything is signed, sealed and delivered without delay, the Hawks will have to prepare quickly for a season that likely will include a condensed schedule and an almost immediate postseason race.
“It will take one or two or three games to get the kinks out,” Bolland said. “I think we’ll pick it up pretty quick. Everybody’s been staying fit and training and staying on the ice. The first one or two games will be a little ugly, but after that we’ll get right back into it.”
The next question is whether fans will fully support their teams following a prolonged lockout that without question damaged the sport in the eyes of paying customers.
“You never want these things to happen, but we have some great fans around the entire league,” Bolland said. “I hope the fans don’t take it the wrong way and are sticking beside us.”