EDMONTON - With a new CBA in place, pending the ratification of its legal documents later this week in New York, the 2013 NHL season has arrived. Better late than never, right?
"Oh man. What a relief," said a jubilant Ladislav Smid Monday afternoon at the Kinsmen Twin Arenas in south Edmonton. "I was so excited to have the Oilers logo on again."
A select group of Oilers players including Smid, Eric Belanger, Corey Potter and Devan Dubnyk have organized informal practice sessions in advance of training camp -- the schedule of which has yet to be released, but it's expected that on-ice sessions will get underway at some point this weekend.
Beginning on Tuesday, Oilers players will have access to the ice at Rexall Place. Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle are expected to be among those in attendance, and others will be dropping in as the week progresses. Because it's still considered an informal practice prior to the CBA's implementation, the club's coaching, equipment and medical staff are not allowed to participate.
"It was a tough process," Belanger sighed. "I went through it in 2004-05 and missed the whole year. I didn't think the season was going to be canceled this time, but we got through September, October, November and December and you're like, 'Is this going to happen again?' It's a roller coaster. But I stayed positive the whole time and was hoping there was going to be a CBA in place.
"It's there now and I'm really pumped about it."
With two kids in school, going to Europe was never an option for the 35-year-old during the work stoppage. As a result, he was forced to stick close to home and find ice time wherever he could with other locked out teammates.
"I was here with Nick Schultz and Ryan Jones," he said. "We were skating with the (University of Alberta) Golden Bears. I also skated with the (AJHL's) Crusaders in Sherwood Park. It was nice to be able to get on the ice with those guys, good practices. I've been skating quite a bit, but unless you start playing NHL games, there isn't anything that's going to duplicate that (pace)."
While Belanger, Schultz and Jones were forced to sit at home, others had opportunities elsewhere. Potter, 29, spent two months with Vienna in the Austrian League. In 17 games, he collected a goal and four points. About a month ago, however, he returned home in preparation for the birth of his daughter.
"It's a lot of fun and a lot of work," he laughed. "It was good to keep my mind off the hockey stuff and to concentrate on my little girl.
"But other than that, it's been a lot of sitting around, a lot of practicing and working out. That gets old after a while."
Back skating with teammates for the first time since mid-September, Potter isn't at all concerned about dropping the puck next week with little practice time and no exhibition games in between.
"It's going to be an interesting start to the season but the guys are excited to get going," he said. "It might be a little weird hopping right into things, but it's also going to be good for the guys not to think too much about it."
The same can be said for Smid, who spent the bulk of the work stoppage planted back home in the Czech Republic. In 22 games with Liberec of the Czech League, Smid posted two goals and 14 points. He returned to Edmonton when he caught a rut in the ice and sprained his MCL. There is no cause for concern with the Frydlant product, however. He's good to go for the 2013 season.
"Everybody's excited," he said. "That's why we were so pissed off and frustrated that the season didn't start on time. I was really excited when I saw the stats that Justin Schultz has in the AHL. Ebs, Hallsy and Nuge were doing really good as well. And then Yakupov had a bunch of points over in Russia. It was getting really frustrating and tough for me, but we're back. We need to have a good, strong camp and be ready for the start of the season.
"It's going to be really tough schedule, but it's the same for everyone. Our goal this year is to make the playoffs. I know I say that every year, but it is and I think our team has a huge chance."
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com | Follow me on Twitter @ryandittrick