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Oilers prepare as usual despite looming lockout

by Ryan Dittrick / Edmonton Oilers
Edmonton, AB - It's September. School's back in session, Labour Day and the Canadian Football League's annual classic matchups are now in the rearview mirror -- so it's hockey season, right?

If only it were that easy. The NHL/NHLPA's Collective Bargaining Agreement set to expire on Sept. 15 and camps scheduled to open a week later, there's certainly no guarantee the season will start on time.

Commissioner Gary Bettman has said the NHL will lock out its players if a deal can't be reached by then. And it this point, it appears more likely than not that rinks across North America will stay quiet.

Following last Thursday's negotiating session, discussion has recessed and there are currently no plans to get back to the bargaining table.

Still, the Oilers (many of them, anyway) are back in Edmonton preparing for the season as usual: Ryan Smyth (and his son, Alex), Ryan Jones, Eric Belanger, Sam Gagner, Nick Schultz, Taylor Fedun, Martin Marincin, Tyler Bunz and ex-Oiler Jeff Deslauriers all participated in a 90-minute session with Skating & Skills Coach Steve Serdachny Tuesday at the Kinsmen Twin Arenas.

More players are expected to come later in the week. As expected, CBA news was the hot topic.

"It was too long and it seems like it drags on," Jones said of his summer, which was spent mostly in Minnesota. "Just going about business. I don't know anything more than you guys. It only takes one good day (of negotiations) and we're back. If you relax and think there's going to be a lockout, you're going to be behind early on."

Jones hasn't put much thought into a potential Plan B, should a lockout (and a lengthy one) occur.

"I'm sure, secretly, most guys have been weighing what they're going to do. We all have to stay on the ball. When the time comes, there will be guys that search other avenues to play hockey and that will be that.

"When the time comes, (I'll) deal with it then."

Teammate Sam Gagner, 22, recently signed a one-year, $3.2M contract, but is rumoured to have some interest in EV Zug of Switzerland's National League; ironically enough, it's the same club that Linus Omark signed with last week.

"I've thrown out some feelers to see if there's interest," he said. "If [the lockout] is lengthy, you want to keep playing and stay sharp. I'm hoping that's not the case and I can stick around here to stay in shape, stay game-ready and hope it ends sooner rather than later.

"We've grown up playing hockey every day of our lives. But at the end of the day, we need to stay strong and reach a deal that's fair for both sides -- and that's what we're working toward right now."

Fairness is Priority No. 1 for veteran Eric Belanger. The 34-year-old was with the Los Angeles Kings during the lockout in 2004-05 (he played with HC Bolzano in Italy throughout the wasted season) and is one of the few Oilers to have been around during the last labour bout.

"There's a lot more talk between both sides and players are more informed than we were in 2004," he said, grasping at the positives. "We gave up a lot back then. We missed a whole year to give up that much."

Among the players' concessions were rollbacks in salaries (by 24 percent) and the introduction of a salary cap, deemed by Belanger to provide a method of "discipline" between the owners. He has little interest in revisiting in a similar deal in which the owners would be declared winners, and the same can be said for hundreds of others strongly united by Donald Fehr's leadership of the NHLPA.

"We believe the offer we made (to the NHL) was a good one for both sides and they pretty much laughed in our face," Belanger said. "Now we're back to Square 1, so we'll see what happens in the next few weeks."

"A negotiation takes both sides," Gagner added. "You have to read off what they're asking for. Obviously there have been a couple snags, but as long as we're continually talking and airing out what we both feel, we're headed in the right direction."

Right now, the direction is unclear. What's obvious is that the League and the Players' Association are both miles apart in regards to how revenues should be distributed.

While the game has currently taken a back seat to the business side (read: money), there's still time to work out a deal. And if it all comes together in time, the players will need to be ready.

"Everybody's been working out as usual. We're ready to go," Belanger argued. "We're still working out in the gym, but it's been a long time. We've been off since Apr. 7, but I've been working out since May 1. I'm anxious to get back and play hockey."

"You always get ready with a certain date in mind and I think you have to approach it the same way," Gagner added. "You have to get ready for the 21st, but if it doesn't work out that way, you have to take a step back and maintain on what you built on throughout the summer.

"It's easier said than done. It's something I haven't been through before."

In 75 games last season, Gagner collected 18 goals and 47 points. With Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and now Nail Yakupov in the mix, 2012-13 is a big season -- an opportunity to step up, prove himself and earn a longer look in orange and blue as one of the team's vital young cogs.

He, like countless others in a similar position around the League, don't want the momentum of a positive summer shoved off the rails.

"I went through phases when I played really well last year and it's a matter of maintaining that throughout a full season," he said. "As a group, we're ready to turn the corner and it's exciting to get a chance to be a part of that.

"I'm ready to go. Now it's a matter of maintaining it and trying to be ready when we're called to play."

That could be soon, if all goes well. The Oilers are scheduled to open the 2012-13 campaign on Oct. 13 in Vancouver.

39 days and counting.

-- Ryan Dittrick, | Follow me on Twitter @ryandittrick

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