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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - The waiting has been the hardest part for Columbus Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards.

``It's the Christmas morning that I remember when I was a young kid, 10 or 12 years old,'' Richards said of the arrival of the NHL season. ``I'm excited.''

The NHL and the union agreed last weekend to the framework for a labor contract and worked to put the deal in writing. The players ratified the deal on Saturday, three days after owners unanimously approved the contract.

Once a memorandum of understanding is signed, training camps can open and the countdown to the season can really begin. The league hopes that camps start on Sunday and that a 48-game regular season will get going on Jan. 19.

``Business is business, but it's nice when business is over,'' new Blue Jackets president John Davidson said. ``Hockey players like to play hockey, and now that the business is done with - and it was trying, no question about that - now we can get back to doing what we do best.''

The Blue Jackets, coming off the worst record in the league last season, were greeted by a 100 or so fans Saturday who watched their unofficial workout. Richards and the rest of the coaches won't be on hand until the contract is finalized.

About a dozen players were on the ice, with others undergoing physicals and others still flying in from hockey outposts. Defenseman Nikita Nikitin was expected to arrive from his native Russia, where he was playing for Avangard Omsk of the KHL.

Fedor Tyutin, who also was playing in the KHL, said he was beaten down by his lengthy flight. He was on the ice going through his paces next to those who had just traveled across town.

This is a transitional year for the Blue Jackets since the huge trade this summer which sent the club's best player, left wing Rick Nash, to the New York Rangers in a deal that involved four players and two draft picks.

Richards took over for the fired Scott Arniel at midseason last year and led the way to an 18-21-2 mark. His interim title was removed during the offseason.

The 25-man roster he expects to open practice with on Sunday doesn't include a lot of household names. He said an emphasis on playing with more effort will override not having Nash, who had been the face of the franchise.

``We have guys who have been here for a long time, we've got new guys, we've got some young guys, we've got old guys,'' Richards said. ``There's plenty of faces for the franchise.''

Goalie Steve Mason, the rookie of the year in the Blue Jackets' only playoff season in 2008-09, has struggled the past three seasons. He is being pushed for the starting job by newcomer Sergei Bobrovsky, who played last season for the Philadelphia Flyers before being acquired for three draft picks.

Mason believes the Blue Jackets are improved.

``This is going to be a hard-working group. That's the way we're going to win games - we're going to outwork teams, we're going to grind them down and we're going to be really hard to play against,'' he said. ``Going into this season, teams might look at playing against the Blue Jackets as a free pass but we're going to make sure we change that perception pretty quickly.''

One of the players who came to Columbus in the Nash trade was forward Brandon Dubinsky. He worked out with the team in the summer, before the lockout started in mid-September, and got to know his teammates.

``Obviously, it's been a long wait,'' Dubinsky said. ``Especially for me, getting traded during the summer and being anxious to get the season under way with a new team and a fresh start.''


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The Associated Press News Service

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The Associated Press
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