Phones were buzzing all across North America yesterday morning with the word that a new NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement had been agreed to. Even if it was a pre-dawn wake-up call in some cases, for most, it was the best news they’d heard in a very long time.
“My wife got a text and woke me up around 5:45 a.m.,” said Thomas Vanek. “She asked me if I knew the lockout was over. I told her that I don’t because I’m sleeping. But it was a good day.”
It was a similar scene for Patrick Kaleta.
“I got a couple of texts from my buddies yesterday saying ‘you got your therapy sessions back,’” Kaleta said with a smile. “I get to go out there and do my thing now. I think the overall consensus is that everyone’s excited to get back to work.”
Vanek and Kaleta were among the nine Sabres skating today at the Northtown Center in Amherst, as players around the league got back to work to prepare for what will now be a shortened NHL season. With the CBA still needing approval from both players and owners, informal skates will be the norm for now as players start to make their way back to Buffalo.
Jordan Leopold has been one of the regulars at the skates in Buffalo, choosing not to go overseas for game action during the lockout. He said the tempo and mood at today’s gathering was noticeably more upbeat.
“I think if you look at our skate today, guys are a little more energetic. It’s been an interesting four months now. It’s a time in the middle of January when we definitely thought we’d be playing hockey. But here we sit today, it is what it is. We’re ready and excited to get back to work.”
Once they get back to work, the players know they’ll also have some work to do to win back the support and trust of the fans. Sitting through a 113-day lockout wasn’t easy for the players, but they understand the toll it’s taken on their paying customers. Leopold thinks there’s a very simple way to get back in the good graces of Buffalo fans.
“I think the product will sell itself. Once we get back out there we have to put a good product out there,” said the 32-year-old blueliner. “I’ve been in this league since 2002 and had two work stoppages. It hurts – your career, financially, all different aspects of it. It hurts especially with the people that come to the rink and watch us every day. We’ve gotta go out there and give them a good product, and win back their hearts too.”
Growing up in nearby Angola, NY, has given Kaleta a unique perspective on Buffalo fans – because he is one too. He knows the passion they have for their local sports teams, and says he feeds off the emotion they bring to the building every night.
“I love the fans. Just throwing a number out there that 40 percent of my game is from the fans; feeling the energy from them,” he explains. “I know that fans in Buffalo are the best in the league. Whether it’s the Bills or the Sabres, whatever the sport is, they always back us. They’re the best around. I look forward to stepping on the ice hearing those 19,000 fans again.”
Tyler Ennis was also part of today’s group, and told reporters afterwards that he’s completely recovered from the shoulder injury he suffered while playing in Switzerland.
“It feels really good. I think it was a good decision for me to come home from Switzerland and really get some good medical attention on it. I’m ready to go. Everything feels good, I’m excited.”
Also on the ice today were Drew Stafford, Steve Ott, Ville Leino, Matt Ellis and Mike Weber, along with goaltender Martin Biron of the New York Rangers. Former Sabre enforcer Andrew Peters was running the players through their paces.
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