CHICAGO — When Jamal Mayers settled in at the bargaining table Saturday morning, he hoped for the best.
The Blackhawks' veteran forward had spent more than a week in New York, working to end an NHL lockout that had lasted more than four months. The latest round of negotiations between the players' association and owners had been productive, but given the fact there were still four major issues on the table, Mayers knew nothing was guaranteed.
A lengthy session Mayers described as a marathon, started at 8:30 a.m. and lasted throughout the day and night with the two sides reaching a tentative 10-year agreement around 5 a.m. Sunday.
After 113 days, the two sides had finally come together enough to reach a pact that will be voted on today, officially allowing players to return to the ice in what's expected to be a 48-game schedule that will allow players to focus on hockey rather than on the new collective bargaining agreement Mayers and his fellow player association representatives worked so hard for.
"It's quite intense – it's a lot to absorb, there's lots to stay sharp on, there's a lot to understand on how things are interrelated in making decisions and participating in the dialogue to help shape the ideas of what we want to do," Mayers told the Northwest Herald on Tuesday. "It's difficult when you have to think about 700 guys and you had to think about every aspect of what we were doing."
"But now I'm refocused and re-energized to get ready (for the season)."
As Hawks players begin to travel back to Chicago prepared to begin training camp as early as this weekend. Regular-season games are slated to begin Jan. 19 and after such a long layoff, players are anxious to move forward, putting the long work stoppage behind them.
But getting fully up to speed, players say, is bound to take some time, especially given the roller-coaster ride they endured during the long lockout.
"Toward the middle part of this thing was the toughest part of it," Hawks goaltender Corey Crawford said. "The first couple of weeks, you're just excited to keep training, hoping we can get something done. But after that drags on, it's human nature to be a little upset while you're waiting around for it."
But with an agreement now seemingly in place, players are thankful for the efforts of those who negotiated the deal, ending months of hard feelings between the two sides. Mayers said he's most proud of the pension players were able to secure in the deal, providing them with a sense of security for years to come.
"It's tough when you're a player – you're frustrated, you want to play," said former Hawks defenseman Brian Campbell, who trained locally before returning to Florida on Monday night to prepare for the season with the Panthers. "We weren't going to get something done until people wanted to get it done. But we got a deal that's fair – and that's all we wanted from the beginning ... and finally, we got that."
While players have done their best to keep in playing shape, Mayers and his teammates say that establishing timing among teammates will be among the biggest challenges facing NHL teams entering the shortened season. Mayers, who was among a group of Hawks' players to work privately with Chicago Wolves skating and skills coach Kenny McCudden, said he felt ready to go before spending nine days in New York trying to get a deal done.
But with the work stoppage now out of the way, the Hawks turn their attention to the start of the season, anxious to get back to playing.
"Moving forward, I think everyone's focus should be to leave those hard feelings aside," Mayers said. "We've got a deal – assuming it's ratified – and the focus of the players and the league and the owners should be to work together because we're directly tied together and we want to grow this game and make it as good as it can be."