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

A few lucky Capitals players returned to their home-away-from-home on 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 on 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 on 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 here at the end of the summer following a trade from Dallas and had yet to play a game for his new team.

More of their teammates are expected back in town on 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 a 48 or 50-game season. 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, Md. 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 mid-summer 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.”

So the players, joined by Ribeiro, who has stayed off the ice for the most part the last few months, had one last impromptu workout on Monday and then met briefly with general manager George McPhee and new coach Adam Oates. Plus they renewed acquaintances with members of the training and equipment staffs – the folks who form the backbone of any hockey team.

“We were so excited to put our gear in there and actually have it hung up and not in the refs’ room rotting over there,” Beagle cracked. “Maybe get the skates sharpened for the first time in a month-and-a half. That’d be good. Be able to turn finally.”

He had no intention, however, of lugging the puck bucket around again or filling the water bottles or splitting the almost $400 to rent his own ice at Kettler. Now Beagle and his teammates’ attention can turn to getting into game shape. With only a handful of players in town that was a challenge.

“It’ll be good once we can get some team drills going and some game-like situations,” Beagle said. “We even started doing – when [Halpern] was here – doing a lot of hitting drills. Some were a little dicey. But we didn’t get injured so that was good. We were playing King of the Ring and stuff like that just to try to get our heads around hitting and protecting the puck and working along the boards.”

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