Kings players celebrate the Stanley Cup after defeating the Devils in Game… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
The NHL's lockout of players is likely to drag on until this weekend, after the collective bargaining agreement they tentatively forged early Sunday is completed, reviewed and ratified. But a lock that was open Monday at the Kings' El Segundo practice facility symbolized the beginning of a return to hockey normalcy.
The door leading to their locker room was no longer deadbolted, giving players entry to dress and shower in luxury. Lockout rules had banished them to a cramped public locker room when they had rented ice for informal workouts, but those rules have been relaxed.
"It's been a long time and a lot of guys put in a lot of hard work to get us back where we are, and we're grateful for that," forward Jeff Carter said of the union's role in negotiations. "We're excited to be back in the room and get things going again."
NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said that training camps will open the day after the agreement is ratified and that the schedule won't be released until the timeline for the process is set. Everything points to a 48-game season that will open Jan. 19 with all 30 teams in action — highlighted by the Kings' raising their Stanley Cup banner in an afternoon game at Staples Center.
"I'm ready to see that banner go up, ready to take part in that celebration," defenseman Matt Greene said. "But at the same time, I'm just ready to get going. It's a new year. It's already January and it's going to be pretty busy. I think last year is going to be forgotten pretty quick once you play four games in seven nights."
It's all but certain they will start the season without five-time team scoring leader Anze Kopitar, who sustained a sprain of his right medial collateral ligament Saturday in a game in Sweden.
General Manager Dean Lombardi said MRI images of Kopitar's knee were "not clear, not as definitive as we'd like," and said the Slovenian center will undergo more tests after he returns to Los Angeles on Wednesday. Lombardi repeated his estimate of a two- to three-week recovery period, though such injuries often take longer to heal.
Kopitar's agent, Pat Brisson, also said the recovery could be two to three weeks but added that more will be known after Kopitar is reevaluated.
Because the lockout and many of its quirky rules are still in effect, it's not clear whether Kopitar can be examined and treated by the Kings' doctors. "I don't know if he can," Lombardi said, "but damned straight he is."
The Kings have the right to suspend Kopitar — and defenseman Willie Mitchell, who tweaked his knee about a month ago — if they're not able to play when the season begins. However, it's unlikely club executives will take that step and potentially alienate two key players. Lombardi said he would consult "the higher-ups" about that decision.
Goaltender Jonathan Quick, voted the most valuable player during last season's playoffs, underwent back surgery in August but is expected to be available for the opener. He wouldn't have been ready if the season had begun in October, as scheduled.
Quick's fitness will be a key factor as the Kings attempt to become the first team to win consecutive Cup titles since the Detroit Red Wings triumphed in 1997 and 1998. Also in the Kings' favor is that they've kept their roster intact, a minor miracle under a salary-cap system. The Chicago Blackhawks, for example, had to let go a dozen players after their 2010 championship.
"To keep the team together was special. I don't know the last time that's happened," center Jarret Stoll said. "You have good times like that, good memories, just a great experience, you want to keep all those guys together."
They will stand together at the banner-raising ceremony at Staples Center, a moment they envisioned time and again during the lockout.
"We've been looking forward to that, to seeing the rings, having a good celebration," Justin Williams said. "It's going to be even more exciting that we've waited a little longer for it."