Returning players happy to be at Kettler Iceplex

It is the little things that matter most: a locker stall to hang their gear, a room that doesn't smell like stale sweat, a place to sharpen their skates or torch their sticks just so.

A few lucky Capitals players returned to their home-away-from-home Monday morning when the doors at Kettler Iceplex flung open just 24 hours after the 113-day NHL lockout came to an end. There is still work to be done. The tentative deal between the NHL and the NHL Players' Association needs some legal loose ends tied, and both sides must ratify the new collective bargaining agreement.

But those are mere formalities. Training camps are expected to open by this weekend and games to be played a week after that. When five Caps showed up at Kettler for their daily skate Monday, they dressed in an auxiliary room off the main lobby but soon were back in their own cozy locker room. Jason Chimera, Mike Green, Jay Beagle, Mike Ribeiro and John Carlson -- five players who stayed in town most of the time since the lockout began Sept. 15 -- moved their equipment into the team's facility and then had an impromptu celebration, jumping around and high-fiving each other. Hockey is back. Finally.

"It felt better than Christmas," Beagle said.

"Coming in today, everyone has a smile on," said Ribeiro, who moved his wife and three children to the D.C. area at the end of the summer following a trade from Dallas and has yet to play a game for his new team.

More of their teammates are expected back in town Tuesday, and most should be here by Wednesday at the latest. Then it will be a brief training camp and a quick jump right into what NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told the Associated Press likely would be a 48-game season, similar to that of lockout-shortened 1994-95. It has been a tedious journey to get here.

The small group of Carlson, Beagle and Chimera -- along with former Caps forward Jeff Halpern, a Potomac native who signed with the New York Rangers in the summer -- usually worked out three days a week at Kettler Iceplex to keep themselves in something approximating midsummer form. It was hard to maintain hope when talks between the NHL and NHLPA imploded in early December. But their workload increased as the month progressed, and it became clear the two sides would make one last run at a deal after the holidays.

"It was hard to hide from that," Carlson said. "We come into the rink every day and sit in the locker room five feet across from each other and just talk. You want to stay updated because this is our careers and our lives and our jobs. We have to know what's going on, so it's not tough to follow it."