Eric and Jordan Staal were back on the ice Monday at Raleigh Center Ice and Cam Ward was in goal, just as they have been much of the past four months.
But this time, they dressed in the Canes' locker-room area at RCI. They wore Canes sweaters. They were able to leave their hockey gear in the room when they were done and not carry stuffed equipment bags to their cars.
They also were joined by some faces that haven't been seen in Raleigh in a while -- Chad LaRose and Tim Gleason, Jamie McBain and Pat Dwyer.
As of early Sunday morning, the NHL has the makings of a new CBA, which has been agreed to in principle. The lockout is over, as NHL teams were alerted the players would be allowed to use team practice facilities for the first time since Sept. 15, when the CBA expired and the lockout began.
"It's the day we've kind of been hoping for since this lockout began, just to be able to come back in your own dressing room and get back on the ice knowing there's going to be a season," Ward said. "I'm just excited that it's over and we're back at it."
The players still don't know when training camp will begin or when the season-opener will be played. They're not sure if it will be a 48- or 50-game season. Nor have they voted to approve the CBA, although that could come Thursday.
All that will be answered soon enough by the NHL. For now, it's a matter of getting in the best shape possible for what should be a sprint to the finish line in the NHL with the shortened season.
Ward has not played in a game since April 5, when the Canes topped the Montreal Canadiens at PNC Arena in their final home game. That's a lot of lag time since he was last under fire in an NHL game.
"Obviously I've been skating and trying to do the best I can to stay in good shape and stay on the ice, but game situations are a little different than having six guys (at RCI) skating on the same drills every time we're out there," Ward said. "It's going to be an important week before the first regular-season game to prepare, but I'm sure the rust will start to come off knowing the adrenaline that's going to be pumping.
"It's going to be go, go, go. It's going to generate some exciting hockey because you know every game is important to make the playoffs."
McBain was one of the Canes who went overseas to play during the lockout, signing with the Lahti Pelicans of the Finnish elite league. The defenseman played seven games before returning to the U.S. in mid-December.
"It was good to get some games under your belt and change it up from skating here in Raleigh," McBain said. "It was fun to get back in the swing of game-day routines and being around the guys. Get back in focus and the mindset of playing games.
"It was a good time, a good experience, something I wouldn't think I'd be able to do."
The Canes last used their locker room at RCI on Friday, Sept. 14. At 11:59 p.m. the next day, the CBA would expire.
On that September Friday, Jordan Staal was one of the last players to leave the room, anticipating the lockout was unavoidable but hopeful it would not be a long one. There have been some gloomy, frustrating days since then for the big center, who was traded to the Canes by the Pittsburgh Penguins in June and was eagerly looking forward to joining Eric in the lineup.
"It feels like it's been a long visit here," Jordan joked. "It's nice to be back in the room and having that light at the end of the tunnel. It's a good feeling. I'm just ready to play some hockey."
Today's group skating at RCI also included Anthony Stewart and Joe Corvo. The group should be bigger each day and the players come streaming back into town.
And the thought of cramming, say, 48 games into a very tight scheduling window?
"I'm sure it's going to be a whirlwind," Jordan Staal said. "It's not going to be easy. Every game will be that much bigger, knowing you have a short season. It's going to be interesting."