January 8, 2013 at 3:55 pm

John Niyo

Wings, rest of NHL set to open mystery season

Troy -- It might not look like the NHL is back yet.

The ice is covered inside Joe Louis Arena, previously booked in advance of the North American International Auto Show. And the turnout for the Red Wings' workout in Troy was sparse Monday morning, with only a handful of the players on hand — a half-dozen or so flew to Phoenix late last week to get in some high-intensity training with other locked-out NHLers.

But it does, at least, feel like hockey season again. And as veteran forward Todd Bertuzzi joked after Monday's workout, that sinking feeling of a season slipping away gave way to something far more pleasant in the wee hours of Sunday morning.

"At 3 a.m.," Bertuzzi laughed. "My hamstrings tightened up, my back went. I knew something was going on."

Sure enough, barely an hour before sunrise in New York, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr made it official, announcing the two sides had finally struck a deal on a new collective bargaining agreement.

That CBA remains a work in progress awaiting ratification, which might not happen until the end of this week. In the meantime, everyone remains in limbo. There's no official word on when NHL teams will be allowed to begin abbreviated training camps, or even when the puck will drop on the regular season, though all signs were pointing to a Jan. 19 start date for a 48-game schedule.

But ready or not, here it comes. And maybe the only good thing about a seven-month layoff between seasons is that many fans will hardly remember what top-shelf NHL games are supposed to look like.

"I'm sure the hockey will be a little sloppy for the first little while," defenseman Ian White said. "But that's what happens when you don't have a regular camp."

That's what happens when you've got the village "idiot" — that's what White called Bettman a couple months ago, you'll recall — being led around by a group of owners intent on squeezing every last dollar out of the players' union. (This work stoppage was brought to you, as always, by the "Lockouts R Us" law firm of Proskauer Rose LLP.) And this is what happens when the union actually hires a professional menace like Fehr to represent its interests, rather than a league-endorsed lapdog as they've done in the past.

Crapshoot

As for what happens now, though, that's anyone's guess. Picking a Stanley Cup champion before the season quickly became an exercise in futility in the NHL's salary-cap era. A year ago on Jan. 19, the Los Angeles Kings were two games under .500 and two points ahead of the New Jersey Devils, the team they'd eventually beat in the Cup final.

But even guessing at front-runners this winter seems silly. One key injury or one leaky goaltender or one bad road trip likely will be the difference between a team making the playoffs or making plans for the NHL's new draft lottery.

And with only a week to prepare, Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said, "We're gonna have to get up and running as fast as we can."

So are the referees, of course. (Hope you enjoyed your quiet time, Brendan Shanahan.) And I'd imagine the fans in Detroit will realize pretty quickly what life is like without Nick Lidstrom in uniform. Babcock and general manager Ken Holland both say they're counting on the team's forward depth to help offset the loss of Lidstrom and Brad Stuart on the back end, but we'll see about that — and soon.

High stakes

About the only thing everyone seems to agree on here is that the 250 or so players who decided to kill time overseas during the lockout — or in the minor leagues here in North America — will have a leg up on the competition. Several Red Wings were playing in Europe, including Pavel Datsyuk, who was up to his usual tricks in Russia's KHL, and Henrik Zetterberg and Damien Brunner, who clicked immediately as teammates in the Swiss National League.

"They're obviously gonna have an extra step on everyone else," Bertuzzi said. "I'm pretty thankful that our two superstars were playing and can carry the load until the rest of us catch up."

They'd better not wait too long, though.

"Since there's only 48 of 'em, every game's gonna be high stakes," White said.

High-stakes hockey? The NHL is gambling that'll be enough to thaw some of the hard feelings after giving its fans the cold shoulder again. But aside from discounted ticket prices and some other cosmetic groveling — White mentioned talk of free "NHL Center Ice" cable packages — the best the league can offer is a six-month marathon repackaged as a sprint.

"I think at first there'll be a few empty seats," Bertuzzi acknowledged. "But, I mean, let's face it: Hockey's a great sport. … I think everyone who's been complaining sees that they're the ones sitting at the bar watching darts and stuff like that, when they could be watching a good ol' hockey game."

So, game on, I guess. Just don't expect a bull's-eye.

john.niyo@detnews.com

twitter.com/JohnNiyo

Darren Helm works on his deking skills against Josh Block, a goalie from Royal Oak who was on hand at Troy Sports Arena to help out. / David Guralnick/Detroit News
See Also
More John Niyo