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by Staff Writer / Los Angeles Kings
If you've ever been out of work or between jobs, chances are you were too busy thinking about where your next paycheck was coming from to enjoy the downtime. Hockey players went through a similar experience, the kind most of us have been able to relate to at one time or another in our lives, when the league shut down last season.

With their fulltime jobs clouded by uncertainty, players could either take the hockey equivalent of a temp job by deciding to play abroad, or opt to make the most of the idle time by spending it at home with family.

Derek Armstrong and Eric Belanger decided to play the season in Europe, while Craig Conroy stayed home in upstate New York.

"It was great to spend the time with my family," Conroy says, "but it was hard to really enjoy it because of the uncertainty. I'd get phone calls from my agent and from the player's association, but you never really knew for sure how long the lockout would last what was going to happen next. I skated two or three times a week to stay ready, but not knowing what going to happen was really the hardest part."

Regardless of how they spent their time away from the NHL, most players came to the same conclusion everyone does when something they love is taken away: you don't know what you've got until it's gone.

"I really missed the game and missed being around the guys on the team," Conroy said after a recent morning skate with several other NHL players at the Kings' training facility in El Segundo.

"After a year away from the game, you forget how much you really love it, and how much fun it is."

Conroy believes that part of the fun of his first season as a King will be bonding with new teammates, many of whom are old friends.

"I've known Pavol Demitra, Valeri Bure and Jeremy Roenick for a long time," he says. "It's going to be great playing with them.

"Jeremy is unbelievable," Conroy says. "He's a great player and he loves to talk about hockey, so he'll be good for L.A. I'm really looking forward to playing with him."For Conroy, who has long been regarded as the ultimate team player, hockey is all about togetherness.

"If you think about it," Conroy says, "hockey is one of the few places where you go to work every day and work together to reach a goal. There aren't many jobs that are like that. Everyone wants to win the Stanley Cup and the only way to do that is as a team, so everyone works together. There is nothing better than winning as a team."

Last year, Conroy was concerned most about the team at home. He has three daughters, ranging in ages one to eight, and hockey's shutdown enabled him to spend more time with them at the family's home in Henderson Harbor, New York.

"It was great to spend time with my newborn and it was great to have a Christmas and Thanksgiving at home," Conroy says. "I have three daughters. One is five, one is eight, and the other is now five months old. Being able to be with her that first year is one good thing that came out of the lockout."

Belanger was able to find good during his year away from the NHL, too. He, his wife and their young daughter spent the season experiencing a new culture while Belanger was playing in Balzano, Italy.

"It wasn't the NHL," Belanger is quick to acknowledge. "But it was a good experience. It was definitely good for me to be playing hockey instead of taking a year off."

Although Peter Schaefer of the Ottawa Senators was a teammate of Belanger's in Balzano, for the most part, the hockey wasn't quite NHL caliber.

"I played about 35 minutes a night, which was good for me," Belanger says, "but the league was different. I scored two or three goals a game. The first two lines were pretty good, but after that, there was a big drop off."

A typical game drew around 1,500 fans to an arena that seated roughly 7,000.

Because the talent level dropped so radically, many of the league's players resorted to clutching and grabbing tactics to slow the NHLers.

"There was a lot of holding and slashing," Belanger says, "and the referees weren't very good. It really made me appreciate everything about the NHL."

One thing Belanger did appreciate about Northern Italy was the food. "It was great,' Belanger says. "A lot of pizza and pasta, and it was all very good."

Belanger says he and his wife tried their best to enjoy the time abroad, but it wasn't always easy.

"It was tough on my wife because she was taking care of our one-and-a-half-year-old daughter," he says. "One thing we did do was visit Venice, Milan, and Florence, and that was nice."

Lately, the only sight Belanger has seen is the rink as he prepares for another season. "We were skating the other day," he says, "and we got to talking about how there are only three players left from when I first got here. Matty Norstrom, Lubomir Visnovsky, and me. Luc Robitaille has left and come back, but there are only three that have been here the entire time."

Belanger considers his longevity in Los Angeles an honor.

"I'm really proud of the fact that I've been here this long," he says. "After being away for a year, I appreciate it even more."

For Armstrong, who spent the 2001-2002 season in Switzerland, playing in Europe again was a lot like the old days.

"My wife and I had a great time over there," Armstrong says of his return engagement in Switzerland. "We used it as a life experience. We enjoyed the culture, the fans, and everyone we met."

Armstrong says that people in Switzerland are anything but neutral in their feelings about hockey.

"The people in Switzerland are fantastic and they are really passionate about their hockey," he said. "They don't just go to the games to watch. Instead, they get truly involved in the games. Almost every game is packed with fans."

Of course, there's a big difference between playing in Europe on your way to the NHL and playing there after you've established yourself as an NHL player.

The sights were nice, but Armstrong's heart clearly belongs to the Kings and the NHL.

"I probably wouldn't be in the NHL if it weren't for the Los Angeles Kings," Armstrong says. "It still feels as though I owe them something for giving me the chance to play hockey at this level."

Like Conroy and Belanger, Armstrong appreciated one thing about the lockout: family time. "That was the cool part," he says. "I would take my son to school every day and we did a lot of traveling to our place in Winter Park."

All three agree on something else: it's time to get back to playing NHL hockey.

"I'm really excited about playing in the NHL again," Belanger says.

"One nice thing," Conroy says, "is that now we'll have a full training camp and a full season. Right now, preparing for the season feels like every other year. It's a great feeling."

For Armstrong, returning to the NHL is like coming home after a long trip.

"I missed it," Armstrong says, "more than anyone could know."
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