On a day when there was snow on the ground and a chill in the air, the Boys of Winter, Calgary edition, gathered at Canada Olympic Park, same as they do four days every week, to prepare for an NHL season that may or may not take place.
On Thursday, the Calgary Flames were originally scheduled to play their 2012-13 home opener against the Vancouver Canucks.
Hope was palpable, as it always is, in every NHL city at this time of year. The Flames had appointed a new coach in Bob Hartley, a former Stanley Cup winner. They'd been active in free agency, signing Jiri Hudler away from the Detroit Red Wings and Roman Cervenka from the Continental Hockey League in Russia. Team captain Jarome Iginla looked re-energized. Defenceman Jay Bouwmeester didn't get traded away as a salary-cap casualty after all. Mark Giordano was continuing his push into the higher echelons of NHL defencemen.
On the Vancouver side, would Roberto Luongo have been on the bench for the Canucks? Would he have been their starter? Or, if a collective bargaining agreement had been in place, perhaps Luongo would have already been traded away by now. To the Florida Panthers maybe. Or even to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
That's the best part of the new season, any new season. Training camps and the exhibition season provide fodder for what is to come. Trades. Player cuts. Who made the team? Who didn't? Who will break through as an NHL rookie? What does the defending Stanley Cup champion do for an encore?
Then it's opening night and the answers start to come – except this year, with the NHL 26 days into a lockout and 82 games officially trimmed from the schedule.
Instead of preparing for a raucous opening ceremony, followed by a date with the Sedin twins, the Flames' players shuffled home, after a morning of skating drills, an informal scrimmage and an off-ice workout.
"As a player, what I think about and what I miss is the what-could-be – of having new players, and a new coach," Flames defenceman Cory Sarich explained. "All that stuff – the chemistry that's lost from not having a training camp, all the bonding that happens – if this thing does go, that will be hard to recreate."
Sarich sat out the last lockout in Tampa, where the Lightning had won the Stanley Cup the previous spring in a seven-game series over Calgary. In Tampa, Sarich said players stayed the course for a good three months before hope started to fade.
"We skated hard in October and November and even in December, we had lots of dedication – and pretty decent numbers out there," he said. "As long as there are lots of guys out there, it's pretty easy to do it. When numbers dwindle, that gets tough. So as long as we stay on top of it and keep it fresh. Most guys want to keep themselves in shape, regardless, and this is the best way."
For Iginla, the father of three children, the hours created by the lockout have been easier to fill, because he is in the rinks constantly, to watch and occasionally help coach his hockey-playing offspring.
"In the summer, you're working out and you're focused because there's an end date," Iginla said.
"This is definitely different. It's hard, some days, to find the motivation to go out and keep working out. ... If you don't know if it's going to be for next week, two weeks, two months or whenever. Personally, my time, I've been around the rink a lot more and that side's been fun. But I'd like to find the balance of being there, but also be playing."
Giordano originally signed with Calgary as a free agent in 2004, and thus spent the last lockout playing for Lowell in the American Hockey League. Since the lockout began in mid-September, the fans he's interacted with primarily lament the absence of Hockey Night in Canada games on Saturdays.
"That's the big one I've heard," Giordano said. "Hopefully, we can get this done because both sides can't take that fan support for granted. That's what drives our revenues and our business ... and we have to take that into consideration, too."