- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 29, 2012

As the NHL and its players association trade proposals and barbs back and forth in the process of negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement, John Carlson skates. The Washington Capitals defenseman is doing what hockey players often do best: Thinking about hockey.

“Just working out and skating, that’s all,” he said Tuesday. “I don’t control that stuff. I just prepare myself.”

Ex-Caps veteran Jeff Halpern is doing the same thing. In fact, he has been skating with ColdRush’s Wendy Marco and Co. all summer as usual.

Former teammate Mike Knuble isn’t skating, but rather is relaxing at his home in Michigan. With no contract, he and some other players are left waiting.

The current CBA expires Sept. 15, leaving just over two weeks for the sides to talk before owners lock out the players.

“As far as a time frame, players are in limbo,” Knuble said. “You’ve got to be prepared. Maybe a deal could get done at the 11th hour and then everything’s a go and you don’t want to be left standing there waiting around.”

So few are waiting. Several Caps players began skating at the team’s practice facility along with Halpern this week, including Carlson, Mike Green, Michal Neuvirth, Mike Ribeiro, Dmitry Orlov and prospect Stan Galiev. More could be in the area after Labor Day.

It’s business as usual, at least on the ice.

“I’m going about the same way as I usually would, even as far as going up to New York and skating up there starting the end of this week,” said Halpern, who signed a one-year deal with the New York Rangers. “As far as the type of training, it’s all kind of focused on being ready for [training camp] Sept. 21. If on Sept. 15th or the 21st, whatever, maybe they tell us that it might take some more time, then I’ll readjust at that point and kind of tackle it at that point.”

Players know the reality but generally don’t want to consider what will happen if they are indeed locked out beginning at midnight the morning of Sept. 16.

“Obviously, it’s in the back of everyone’s mind, whether you’re a player, coach, owner, GM, fan, media, everybody,” Carlson said. “We put our trust into what we have and we feel strongly about it.”

It’s in the forefront of a lot of minds around hockey, including commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr, who has earned the trust of players with his communication skills and reputation as a tough cookie in negotiations.

This week, the league submitted a new proposal to players that represented something of a compromise on splitting hockey-related revenue but not much movement. It appears both sides are far apart with time running out.

But for Halpern and Knuble, who both lived through the 2004-05 lockout, it doesn’t feel as bad this time around.

“Just the fact that they’re talking,” Halpern said. “You keep hearing that there’s big differences. Really the things that we’re discussing now are a lot different than seven years ago. There was major, fundamental changes that happened in the last lockout. Right now we’re talking about percentages and defining revenues. I think those kind of things, it should be easier to talk through those things than it was major, major shifts in the landscape of the CBA.”

Knuble, now 40 years old, said in 2004 guys were already making plans to play in Europe. He spent that season with Linkoping and led the Swedish Elite League with 26 goals.

This time around? He’s waiting, along with many others, for something to get done.

“Everybody seems to be sitting pat and waiting around. It’s been kind of gradual. It’s kind of snuck up on everybody,” Knuble said. “It kind of snuck up on everybody and crept up slowly, but all of a sudden here we are, end of August and everybody’s seeing a deal is going to be hard to come by here.”

Halpern’s plan is to wait things out in New York with his teammates, though the Potomac, Md., native didn’t rule out changing gears and visiting friends back home if there’s a work stoppage.

Knuble doesn’t believe the owners and players will argue long enough to cost the NHL a full season, calling such a scenario “just absolutely crazy.” A wintertime start would be much more likely, giving the league at least enough time to put on the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day.

Still, given that some players saw their careers end with the last lockout, Knuble knows that possibility exists.

“That’s reality. There’s no hiding from that,” he said. “As a player, there’s casualties all the time. The lockout I remember there were a lot of guys that became casualties and that was kind of the way it was. The longer it goes it’s probably worse off for the older guys, the longer it goes. If we miss a whole year, that’s pretty much a killer right here.”

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