Reporting David Elfin
For the first time in nearly eight months, it’s almost back to normal for the Washington Capitals. Eleven players, including captain Alex Ovechkin, skated this morning at Kettler IcePlex. General manager George McPhee, new coach Adam Oates, Ovechkin and goalie Braden Holtby, the surprise hero of the 2012 team’s run to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, all addressed the media.
McPhee wore a suit (sans tie). Oates was clad in his Caps warmup jacket. Ovi (with a humorous inscription in his native Russian) and Holts (Caps) wore T-shirts. The looks were all different, but the messages were all the same: We’re glad and relieved that the four-month lockout of the NHL players by the owners is over and we hope you are, too.
Oates was so thrilled to finally have a chance to do the job he was hired to do last June that when he learned the lockout was over at 5 AM Sunday, he was at Kettler by 5:30.
Holtby thought maybe someone was joking when he saw the news on Twitter at 7AM after being awakened by his infant son.
Ovechkin, who figured as recently as Saturday that he was going to spend the entire season playing back home for Dynamo Moscow, was on a plane to Washington less than 12 hours after he heard the lockout was history. McPhee said that he never believed the rumors that his two-time Hart trophy winner/face of the franchise might never return.
“It’s the best league in the world, he’s a competitive guy,” said McPhee, who expects the Caps to start the likely 48-game (down from 82) schedule with three straight home games.
“It’s over,” Ovechkin said. “Sometimes you think why we do that? I’m happy to be back. It was hard time, but I think everybody miss hockey. It’s nice to be back. Last night at the airport, people said, ‘Thanks very much for coming back. We can’t wait to see you play.’ ”
While the Caps’ core of recent seasons is basically intact if center Nicklas Backstrom – who missed half of 2011-12 with a concussion — is able to play after suffering another serious blow to the head while skating with Ovechkin in Russia, Oates is one of just four rookie NHL head coaches. That means he has just the brief training camp, which is expected to open this weekend before the season starts less than a week later, to try to teach his players a new system.
“It was a work stoppage, it happens in all walks of life, you can’t prepare for how long it’s gonna be,” said Oates, who spent part of the lockout as the co-coach for Washington’s top minor league team in Hershey, Pa. and thus got to work with Holtby. “I’m sure every coach in the league is over-prepared because they’ve gone over everything so many times. We’ll try to make the transition [from former coach Dale Hunter’s system] as smooth as possible. We’re playing a game very soon so it’s really not training camp. It’s the season.”
Oates, who played well for Boston during the NHL’s only previous lockout-shortened season, and McPhee, then the assistant GM of defending Western Conference champion Vancouver, recalled that it didn’t take long for that 1994-95 campaign to gets its legs, so to speak. Fourteen of the 16 playoff teams from 1993-94 qualified again.
“It’s going to be a sprint, for sure, but 48 games is still a lot of hockey,” Oates said.
“It will be really unpredictable,” McPhee said. “I guess that’s going to make it exciting. It’s not going to be perfect.”
This training camp won’t include the usual young hopefuls trying to catch the coaches’ eyes. Only the 22 players expected to be with Washington – plus currently injured defenseman Dmitry Orlov, long-ailing defenseman Tom Poti and top blue line prospect Cameron Schilling– will be on hand. There won’t be any preseason games in which Oates can assess his line combinations and defensive pairings. And as likely the case for every NHL team, half the roster hasn’t skated a shift since before Robert Griffin III had yet to take even a practice snap with the Redskins’ veterans.
When the NHL cancelled the 2004-05 season, McPhee wasn’t that upset. At the direction of Washington owner Ted Leonsis, he had dismantled a veteran roster over the previous year, dealing such stars as Jaromir Jagr, Peter Bondra, Sergei Gonchar and Robert Lang for prospects and draft picks. The Caps then chose the 18-year-old Ovechkin with the first selection in the 2004 draft and were happy to have an extra year to let him and his fellow youngsters mature.
“I was in no rush to get back last time,” McPhee said. “This is different. We have a real solid team. I hope [the fans] are as happy as we are. We’re all hockey fans. I’ve missed hockey. You’ve missed hockey. They’ve missed it. … Thank goodness [it’s back], it’s about time.”
Indeed. Welcome back, Caps.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin