As several members of the Washington Capitals took part in an informal workout Friday afternoon at Kettler Iceplex, the atmosphere was not unlike that of a team's breakdown day at the end of the season.
While the Capitals did actually skate through a workout unlike at a breakdown day, afterwards players cleaned out their lockers, signed some pucks for the team, and then grabbed their equipment and loaded their cars. It was as if they were packing up for the summer. But this time, the calendar read September, when training camps should just be opening. The National Hockey League's Collective Bargaining Agreemnt is set to expire Saturday at midnight and owners are set to lock players out without a new agreement. But, with no agreement in sight, no one knew when the players would be allowed back in their locker rooms again.
After the workout, standing tall on skates and with a lot of resolve in his glare, Brooks Laich, the Capitals' NHLPA representative, didn't mince words about what the players felt they needed to do in the next round of negotiations.
"Last time [in 2004] we thought we got the raw end of the deal and we have to fight this time."
While this lockout seems to be following the path of last year's NBA lockout, the players' resolve to achieve some sort of win could determine how long the NHLPA holds out this time.
By all accounts, the NHLPA was roundly defeated in 2005 after losing a fight to stop a salary cap system. This time around, Laich indicated that the players have a "shark" of a leader in former Major League Baseball Players Association head Donald Fehr, and they wouldn't back down and sign another deal that wasn't good for the players.
"At some point you have to dig your heels in and fight," Laich said. "If we don't this time, then what happens next? Appeasement only makes the aggressor more aggressive, and the players really understand that. We believe in our cause and our leadership and I believe we're more unified this time and ready for a fight."
One of the aspects of the negotiations that drew Laich's ire was the owners' insistence on a reduction in existing player contracts, despite the league reporting record revenues last season (an estimated $3.3 billion).
"Players have long memories. One, it's the financial part of it, that they want to roll back our contracts is the financial part which is going to make anybody - I don't care what business you're in - kick a fire under a lot of people.
"The second part of it, which maybe goes overlooked, is that every contract ends with a handshake. Every single contract. Where I come from, you honor your handshakes and you have your word. If you don't have that you have nothing.
"If I make a bad deal, sign a bad contract that's my fault. And I accept that, I'm a man and I work through that. That's something I deal with. I don't go crying foul and looking for somebody to fix my mistakes. I accept that as a man, that I made a bad decision. I think that hockey players are pretty honest people and they don't like it when it's coming back the other way."
While asked about the Saturday deadline, Laich mentioned there will be several deadlines to come, which affect the scheduled opening of Capitals camp on Sept. 21, the preseason opener on Sept. 25, and the season's opening night, currently scheduled for Oct. 12, but very much in the air right now.
In Laich's statements lie the biggest question that will face the lockout. While the owners have all the cards and resources to outlast the NHLPA, how long will the players go without an NHL paycheck?
Several players are already heading to Europe to play on temporary contracts, including team captain Alexander Ovechkin, who is already back in Russia and likely will play for a KHL team during a potential lockout. Others, like Nicklas Backstrom, will stick around Washington hoping for a quick solution. Backstrom said he'd only head to Sweden if it appears the lockout would be lengthy.
The players will also get an escrow check on Oct. 15 to take away some of the sting of a lost check at the beginning of the season - players are only paid during the regular season.
Laich didn't mask his disgust for the process reaching this point.
"It's truly going to be a shame if we miss one day," he said. "But that's what happens when adults get in the way of a kids' game."
For more on the Capitals, check out Japers Rink.