RALEIGH — The NHL lockout didn’t keep Jiri Tlusty from playing hockey games.
Tlusty was among the Carolina Hurricanes players who left to compete in pro leagues overseas, and who now will go into a condensed NHL season in decent game shape.
Tlusty was in Raleigh but quickly returned to Kladno in the Czech Republic when the NHL lockout began Sept. 16. He soon found himself on a line with Jaromir Jagr and Tomas Plekanec for HC Kladno.
“I was able to play in my hometown, in front of my family and friends,” Tlusty said Friday. “I was able to play with one of the best players in the world, Jagr, and with Plekanec. It was like, ‘The NHL is locked out, so let’s go out and have some fun.’ ”
Not a bad way to warm up for an NHL season. Jagr, 40, is a future Hockey Hall of Famer who will play this year for the Dallas Stars. Plekanec is a veteran forward for the Montreal Canadiens and former Czech Olympian.
Jagr also has another distinction: he has long been Tlusty’s hero.
“Everyone in Kladno looks up to him,” Tlusty said. “It was one of my dreams come true to play with him. It probably wouldn’t have happened without the NHL lockout.
“He plays so well for his age. It was fun to watch a guy like that, showing he can play. He’s still such a strong guy.”
Tlusty played 24 games, although an injured wrist kept the winger out of a few games before Christmas. He returned to play after the Christmas break before making the trip back to Raleigh and skated Friday with teammates at Raleigh Center Ice.
The NHL players will finish voting on the new collective bargaining agreement at 8 a.m. Saturday. The NHL schedule should be released soon after the vote, training camps will open and the regular season will start on Jan. 19.
“It will be a bit different start for different players,” Canes forward Jussi Jokinen said. “Some guys have played a lot, some guys have played some and some guys haven’t played any.”
Jokinen made three trips to Finland to play for Karpat of the Finnish elite league during the lockout, signing short-term contracts each time. Defenseman Jamie McBain also was in the Finnish SM-liiga with the Lahti Pelicans.
Jokinen said he was used at both center and wing for Karpat. Odds are, it will be the same situation with the Canes .
“That’s been the case pretty much every year I’ve been here,” Jokinen said, smiling.
Andreas Nodl, a native of Vienna, Austria, competed for Innsbruck in the Austrian Hockey League. Anthony Stewart headed to England where the forward played for the Nottingham Panthers of the Elite Ice Hockey League.
“It was great,” Nodl said. “I played 20 minutes a night. I think that’s huge to be playing. You can practice all you want, you can skate all you want, but playing in games is totally different.
“When you come in in September (for NHL training camp) you’re in good shape but not good hockey shape. I’m in pretty good hockey shape. I feel better than I did in September.”
Nodl got mostly fourth-line minutes with Carolina last season, although he was used as a third-line winger at times. With a shortened season, Canes coach Kirk Muller could spread out the minutes more evenly.
That’s just one decision Muller and his staff must make. Another big one will be who plays on the top line.
Eric Staal should center the line and free-agent forward Alexander Semin – who got in some games in the KHL during the lockout – could be the right wing. Tlusty, who had a chance to play with Staal last season and scored a career-high 17 goals, is one option on the left side.
It was the Tlusty-Jagr-Plekanec line for Kladno. Asked Friday how a Tlusty-Staal-Semin line sounded, he grinned broadly.
“That would be great,” Tlusty said. “I hope I proved to everyone I can play in situations like that. But we have so many good players. We’ll see how it goes.”
And playing 48 games in a 100-day window? “It will be physical and it will be tough,” he said.