Saturday might have been Jan. 5, but for Detroit Red Wings forward Dan Cleary, it felt like Feb. 2 all over again.
However, on Sunday, he and other NHLers finally got to turn a calendar page that seemed to be fixed in place by the National Hockey League lockout.
“It was getting to be pretty Groundhog Day-ish,” said Cleary of the 16-week lockout, which is ending after a deal was reached early Sunday.
“I’m glad we’re finally getting to the day after Groundhog Day.”
The 32-year-old Riverhead, Harbour Grace native wasn’t surprised a resolution was reached in what had bordered on a bitter dispute. Among Red Wings, he was a prominent member of the players’ union, and while not on the union’s negotiating committee, attended numerous NHLPA meetings and stayed active in the process.
“I was in pretty good contact with our negotiators, so I can’t say I was surprised when I heard the news (Sunday morning),” he said.
“I felt excited, maybe in even a little nervous. but my first reaction actually was ‘It’s about time.’”
Cleary is one of seven players from Newfoundland affected by the NHL lockout, the others being Dallas Stars winger Michael Ryder (Bonavista), San Jose Sharks winger Ryane Clowe (Fermeuse), Tampa Bay Lightning forward Teddy Purcell (St. John’s), Buffalo Sabres defenceman Adam Pardy (Bonavista), Ottawa Senators forward Colin Greening (St. John’s) and Buffalo forward Luke Adam (Kilbride).
Like Cleary, both Clowe and Greening said they weren’t caught off guard by Sunday’s deal.
“One thing I learned through all this was not to get your hopes up too much, because there were a few times when it looked close and things kind of fell apart,” said Clowe. “But I had a better feeling this time around that they would be able to beat down the door and get it done and beat the clock, which they did.
“Good thing, because that clock that was ticking was like a ticking time bomb, too. It could have blown up at any time.”
Adam had been assigned by the Sabres to the AHL prior to the lockout, but Greening was the only Newfoundland NHL player who signed on with a European team in the interim. Late last week, the 26-year-old from St. John’s flew to Boston from Denmark, where he had been playing with the Aalborg Pirates of that country’s elite league.
“I did so thinking — and certainly hoping — that a deal would be coming,” said Greening. “So I’m not that surprised. We all knew — or at least it was rumoured — (NHL commissioner) Gary Bettman is a deadline guy. That’s the way it turned out.”
For both Cleary and Clowe, what will be a shortened season will be the last under their current contracts.
“In the last year of a deal, you obviously want to be playing, you want to be performing, to leave something in your general manager’s mind,” said Cleary. “At the same time, you hope the résumé you’ve built up over the years means something ... is enough to prove what you can do.”
His contract status played a big part in Clowe’s decision not to play during the lockout. He had signed with the ECHL’s San Francisco Bulls, but never appeared in a game with them, only practising and helping out the coaching staff.
“I didn’t really pursue playing anywhere because I didn’t want to risk getting hurt when I am in the last year (of the deal),” said the 30-year-old.
His not playing, however, didn’t have anything to do with the shoulder injury that troubled him during the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs.
“I would have been ready to go in September, good for training camp, no problem. But the extra time probably won’t hurt,” said Clowe, who also worked out on his own, even took his gear with him so he could keep skating during a Christmas-time trip to Newfoundland.
“I have to say it got tougher and tougher as time went on, but I think I did a pretty good job of staying motivated.”
Nevertheless, Clowe figures that as the season starts, he’ll be a step behind those who have played meaningful games during the lockout. He also knows he won’t be alone.
“All of us who haven’t been playing will be pretty much starting over the same, and I think the guys who have been playing somewhere else will have a leg up as we get going, but it should even put pretty quickly.”
Greening isn’t sure what advantage he’ll bring to an abbreviated Senators’ training camp. For him, the decision to go to Aalborg was more a matter of maintenance of status.
“Where I am younger and still relatively new in the league, I didn’t think I had the luxury of not playing,” said Greening, “where veteran players know their bodies well enough to know how (long) they could withstand a lockout.”
Greening had 13 goals and 25 points in 17 games for Aalborg.
“It was very high quality league, better than I expected,” he said. “It’s a fast game, with lots of skating. It’s a different kind of test.”
Now, he begins preparation for a new exam.
“With a short season, every game becomes that more important and I’m sure the intensity will reflect that,” said Greening. “Add in the smaller surface and more hitting and it’s definitely going to be nastier than what I’ve been used to the last while.
“But I don’t mind a bit.”
Cleary expects the Wings’ training camp to open on the weekend, and while he knows he won’t be in game shape, says he will be in shape nonetheless.
“Everybody’s been skating three times a week since September, four times a week in the last month and there have been hockey camps and scrimmages,” said Cleary, who along with Clowe, was among the locked-out players who participated in organized sessions in Vail, Colo., Dallas and Arizona over the last couple of months.
He also says the left knee that underwent surgery last spring is good to go. He needed to have the knee drained at least four times over the final two months of last season, and required the operation in May to repair damaged cartilage.
“I have to say knee feels a lot better today than it did Sept. 15, so the time off probably didn’t hurt me that way, but I still would have been OK for training camp,” he said.
Cleary says the chief benefit of the work stoppage was that it that it allowed him to spend more time with his wife, Helen, and daughters, Elle and Lola, “doing things I wouldn’t normally get to do with them, especially this time of year.
“But Dad’s also happy to get back to work.”
Meanwhile, Clowe appreciated being able to go home for the holidays — “First time in 10 years I got to do that.
“But I was glad to get the word we were getting a deal,” said Clowe, who received word about the agreement in the early hours of Sunday because of the time differences between the east and west coasts.
“I slept very well, best in a long time,” he said.