'It's nice to be back'

SCOTT ZERR -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 8:30 AM ET

Ryan Smyth didn't need any incentive to get back to work.

Had he required such a push, Smyth would likely have felt it from the surge of enthusiasm shown to him and the rest of the Edmonton Oilers during the Fan Day extravaganza held over the weekend at the AgriCom. Smyth was besieged by autograph requests and posed for countless photos. If it was a political rally, the guy would be mayor.

The grand show of interest clearly indicated that Oiler fans are over their frustrations of the lockout. As glad as the troops in the stands are to have their team back, Smyth was equally tickled pink.

"It's been a long year. I enjoyed being with my family but there's another side to life that was missing and that was the game," said Smyth. "Once I'm in that rink it's a relieving feeling."

Smyth will get that sense of relief when he takes his first strides on the Rexall Place ice as training camp gets underway today. He was far from alone in his desire to be doing the thing he does best.

"It's nice to be back in the lockerroom with the guys and see all the familiar faces. It's nice for me and I think everybody feels like that," said Radek Dvorak.

"It helps us knowing those fans are staying behind us. Everybody gets to see the game again. We had our ups and downs and the fans maybe changed their minds, but in the end the fans and hockey win."

HOCKEY IS BACK IN THE HEARTLAND

NHL hockey is back in the heartland. Back where it gets top billing - a stroke of good fortune for the players who seem not to have lost a single thread of support.

"We're lucky we play in probably the greatest hockey city in the world," said Marc-Andre Bergeron, who fervently ranked Edmonton ahead of his hometown of Montreal.

"Hockey's big there but it's not bigger than here.

"It's a religion here. I spent my whole summer in Quebec and there was a lot of talk about the Canadiens but not more than I've been hearing about the Oilers here."

Because of that, Bergeron reasoned, there'll be no shortage of fans banging down the doors on opening night, and certainly no lack of following each and every move the Oilers make during the new ice age.

"You can tell already that the atmosphere is just great," he said. "We're still about a month away and people are all ready for the games.

"The fans haven't forgotten about the lockout but at some point you have to turn the page."

THUNDEROUS HIT

One thing the fans definitely have not lost track of is Bergeron's thunderous hit on Dallas Star Brendan Morrow during the ferocious 2003 playoff series between the clubs - a wicked shocker that completely flipped Morrow in mid-air and landed Bergeron with the No. 1 spot on a recent collection of sport's most electrifying collisions.

Now there's the matter of whether he, Igor Ulanov and the other Oiler rearguards who light up at the sight of oncoming forwards on their tracks can still dish out those checks with more open space in the neutral zone while still protecting against the two-line pass.

"Every time you do that you're taking a chance," admitted Bergeron. "It's not something you want to try every game but every once in a while it's probably possible. But with the stretch man, the defence is going to need to be a lot closer to their own end.

"Maybe if the guy is skating toward my end and I'm standing at the blue-line, maybe I can step up on him but if he's right by my side and he's getting a long pass, I have to stop and defend that."


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