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already preparing for peace time

6/24/2005 6:28:50 PM

AMHERST, N.Y. (AP) - James Patrick got a sense of how eager his NHL colleagues are to resume playing when the veteran defenceman tried to skip out early on an informal practice Thursday.

Listening to Michael Peca and Matthew Barnaby ribbing him and calling him a quitter, Patrick sheepishly shrugged his shoulders and returned for a few more minutes. He was greeted by a rousing cheer from the small group of Buffalo-area players who have been skating about twice a week during the NHL labour dispute that wiped out all of last season.

While the 10-month dispute might not yet be officially over, talks are reportedly progressing, leading to a renewed feeling a deal is imminent and it's time for everyone to get into shape.

"During this past year when it didn't look that good, guys didn't have the same outlook, the same attitude. If you missed a day, big deal," Patrick said. "Now it's more, 'Gotta go, gotta go.' That's just the start of the feeling you can see coming out."

The players are already making plans to step up their pace of practices to three times a week next month.

"Things are looking very positive and we haven't heard that in a long time," said Sabres defenceman Jay McKee. "When you lose something for a year, something that you're passionate about, it hurts. And to know that things are looking positive and both sides are feeling better about the way things are going, you can't help but be real excited."

Little news is filtering out of the labour talks, which have alternated between Toronto and New York over the past two months. The framework of a deal, which includes a salary cap, is reported to be already in place and the NHL Players' Association informed its members two weeks ago that 90 per cent of the agreement is settled.

McKee, who also serves as the Sabres union representative, accepts the cap even though players were initially against one.

"It's easy to be the general after the war, and you can always look back and say, 'What if?' or 'Maybe, we should've,"' McKee said. "I'll stand behind our executive committee 100 per cent, whether we get the best deal in the world or a deal we're shaking our heads at. I just want to get back out there."

NHL teams also appear to be gearing up for a season, considering the flurry of recent announcements.

This week alone, St. Louis re-signed head coach Mike Kitchen, Chicago hired Dale Tallon as its new general manager, and Anaheim hired Brian Burke as the team's executive vice-president and GM.

Sabres managing Larry Quinn said the team is anticipating to play next season and optimistic a deal will be reached soon.

The players are taking the same approach.

"The common theme is there's no deal until there's a deal," said Peca, the New York Islanders captain who lives in suburban Buffalo. "But obviously, it appears that it's headed in the right direction and everybody's taking the steps necessary to prepare for that."

Thursday's workout, which also included Sabres goaltender Martin Biron, was a fast-paced and competitive scrimmage. Although there was no hitting, players enthusiastically celebrated goals as if it were the regular season.

"You can see the eagerness and the competitiveness coming back," Peca said.

"I can't wait to play," Peca said, pausing briefly. "But I need to wait because I need to get in better shape."


Good stuff. :smiley_aa
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