PLYMOUTH, Mich. – On a sheet of ice a few miles from sandy beaches, the Los Angeles Kings finally got to begin their quest to hoist the Stanley Cup again.
Several hundred fans packed wooden bleachers in El Segundo, Calif., on Sunday, eager to watch the Kings practice four months after the NHL lockout started and seven months after their favorite team was crowned champion for the first time.
A skate that usually would draw a few dozen fans in the past turned into a place to be because hockey is back.
“You get a little celebration, but pretty soon you start wanting to get ready for the season,” Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick said. “We’ve been looking forward to this for a long time now.”
Quick’s not alone.
The NHL, and its fans who haven’t been soured by a third work stoppage in less than two decades, finally can shift its focus to the ice after languishing through labor negotiations that ended on the 113th day of the lockout Jan. 6.
Almost a full week after agreeing to a tentative deal, both sides signed a memorandum of understanding late Saturday night to seal labor peace for at least eight years. The signatures allowed teams to open training camp Sunday and most did, including the Detroit Red Wings at a roughly half-full suburban Detroit rink that has 3,504 seats.
“It almost felt like Christmas, seeing everyone again and seeing everyone so excited to get going again,” Detroit defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. “It was a great feeling to see all the fans out there also.”
More than 2,000 Philadelphia Flyers fans crammed into the team’s training facility in New Jersey and warmly welcomed the team back.
“This warm reception makes us feel a little bit better about what happened to the fans and being out so long,” Flyers forward Scott Hartnell said.
The Florida Panthers, Nashville Predators and Phoenix Coyotes planned to have their first practices today.
There’s not much time to get ready for a 48-game sprint of a season – all that could be salvaged from an 82-game slate – that will start without anyone playing a preseason game and won’t get much rest.
“Normally in a five-week training camp you get an opportunity to give everybody over eight exhibition games the power play, the penalty kill, everything to really show what they have,” Detroit coach Mike Babcock said. “That’s not going to happen.”
Teams will play an average of 3.44 games a week, slightly more than the 48-game, lockout-shortened 1994-95 season, after playing 3.15 a week on average last season, according to STATS LLC.
Los Angeles gets to open at home against the Blackhawks after unveiling the franchise’s first Stanley Cup banner Saturday in one of 13 games on opening day. The Kings then play 11 of their next 14 games on the road.
“It’s going to be a grind,” Kings defenseman Drew Doughty said. “It’s going to be playoff hockey every time we’re out there, but that’s what we enjoy. Everybody in the league is going to be in the same boat, so we’ve got to avoid going on any long losing streak, but we’re happy to get a chance to come back.”
The Kings beat New Jersey in six games to become the first team seeded eighth to win the Stanley Cup. They are hoping to finish the season as the NHL’s first repeat champions since the Detroit Red Wings hoisted Cups in 1997 and 1998.
It won’t be easy.
Both conferences had five 100-point teams last season and some good teams in the East and West made moves in the hopes of becoming great. Other clubs spent a lot of money last summer hoping to get into the mix.
The postseason will start April 30 and end no later than June 28.
The New York Rangers were top-seeded team in the Eastern Conference playoffs last season and fell a round short of the finals last year. They’re hoping for more this year after acquiring five-time All-Star Rick Nash in a trade with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Minnesota Wild made the largest splash in free agency, shooting to get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2008. They surprised many across the league when they added highly touted free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter with 13-year, $98 million contracts.
Minnesota won’t have much time to break in their new stars.
“Getting off to a good start’s pretty important,” Parise said. “You don’t have the dog days of the season. It’s basically half a season and go. It’s a sprint to the playoffs. So you want to make sure the games at the beginning of the season are just as, if not more, important than the ones at the end.
“You want to put yourselves in a good spot.”
The Kings tried to give themselves a chance to end in the same spot they ended up in last year, keeping their team together entering coach Darryl Suter’s first full season behind their bench.
“We know every team is going to be gunning for us,” Doughty said. “But we’re confident we’re going to have a good team again that can compete.”
AP Sports Writers Greg Beacham in El Segundo, Calif., Dan Gelston in Voorhees, N.J., Dave Campbell in Minneapolis contributed to this report.
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