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NHL labor talks straggle toward Saturday deadline

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John Carlson, as recently as Tuesday, insisted he didn't want to think about a potential NHL lockout. He didn't have any plans beyond this weekend, when the collective bargaining agreement expires and owners can shut the doors to team facilities.

"I'm young and we'll see what happens," the Washington Capitals defenseman said. "All I want to worry about right now is trying to play hockey next season."

When that season starts remains to be seen, but Saturday night is the deadline for reaching a CBA. Barring an eleventh-hour agreement, the lockout that so many have wanted to avoid will become a reality when the clock hits midnight.

For so long it has seemed inevitable, but the NHL Players Association wants to dispel that notion.

"The only thing that needs to be said about that is it's a choice that is being made," NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr told reporters in New York. "It's not a requirement; it's not something anybody has to do."

That has been the players' stance, but commissioner Gary Bettman reiterated Thursday that owners won't continue to operate under the current CBA. He reported no new developments from the league's Board of Governors meeting, and Fehr said "there have been no new developments since yesterday."

In this case, no news is bad news. But the outlook hasn't been rosy for a long time, and that has forced Capitals players to deal with an uncertain future.

"It's a crummy situation, and we all wish we knew we were going to be down here playing," defenseman Jack Hillen said Tuesday. "It makes it tough trying to figure out what you're going to do and organize where you're going to be during the lockout. Hopefully it doesn't get to that, but it doesn't sound too optimistic right now."

In the event of a lockout, captain Alex Ovechkin said he's going back to Russia to play in the Kontinental Hockey League.

Goaltender Michal Neuvirth said he has a few offers to play in Europe. Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson probably could, too; Backstrom said recently he hadn't considered that possibility.

But once the lockout begins, there won't be room for players to say they haven't thought about the possibility. For those who don't quickly latch on in another league, and that's a vast majority of the rank-and-file, it's a frustrating game of wait-and-see.

"To be honest, as of late, I've been thinking a lot about it," forward Matt Hendricks said. "Thinking about options and plans and now having a family to look after, you've got to make plans that work for everyone."

Hillen left open the possibility of returning home to Minnesota, where other players will be skating. Right wing Troy Brouwer, who just signed a three-year extension, plans on living at his Chicago home with his wife while anticipating the birth of their first child.

Some, including forward Jason Chimera and center Mike Ribeiro, are rooted in the D.C. area because their children are in school. But a work stoppage means they can't use the Caps' locker room or training facilities. If they choose to skate at the team's practice rink, they'll have to pay for use of the ice.

"Yeah, we've got to get our ducks in a row here because we've always been thinking, 'Oh, something will happen, something will happen,'" Chimera said. "The prices are more for ice here than in Edmonton, that's for sure. I saw some of the prices to rent ice for an hour and I was like 'Holy!'"

That's a different reality for players, who Chimera conceded have enjoyed simple luxuries such as having their sweaty clothes washed and skates sharpened when in town for informal workouts.

A different reality comes Oct. 11 if there are paychecks missed. There's still time, though no one knows how these negotiations will change Sunday morning and beyond.

At that point, a major deadline will have been blown and the players would be on the outside of the NHL looking in for the first time since 2004-05 when the season was canceled.

No one wants that outcome this time, which is why Fehr called a lockout "a choice that ought to be reconsidered." Players agree.

"We want to play hockey," Hendricks said. "We know it's a business, and we know we have to watch out for ourselves, especially at these times. But it's a game that we love playing, we've been playing our whole lives. We want to get out, we want to play games, but at the same time not at the expense I think as the last go-round."

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