It is an open secret in the NHL that major labor unrest awaits when the collective bargaining agreement expires in 2004. But soon even people in the league offices loathe to talk about the subject might have to.

Sources said among the topics to be discussed at the board of governors meetings held today and Wednesday in Boca Raton, Fla., is the creation of a fund for teams in the event of a lengthy work stoppage in 2004--something many NHL executives believe is a foregone conclusion. The NHL Players Association created such a fund for players and expect both sides to begin lobbying the fans to their side as the deadline approaches. Money will be deposited and invested so both sides will have some cash flow if the league shuts down.

"I'm sure we'll have to do what the union has done," said one longtime member of the board of governors. "We're going to have big problems when the CBA expires."

All NHL teams, save for the free-spending and poor-performing New York Rangers, have shown great restraint since the free agency period began July 1, but put themselves in a huge hole by driving the average salary well over $1 million with ill-conceived free agent signings in the latter half of the decade. Now veterans who were signed to $3 million deals a few years ago are playing for less than $1 million (such as Boston's Joe Murphy), but neither side is expected to cave.

In the coming years teams will continue to push for lower salaries, arguing the market has changed and deals signed from 1995 to 1999 were an anomaly. Meantime, agents will continue to use those deals as comparables in contract negotiations; they will continue to push for escalating salaries. Of course, this means lengthier contract impasses and perhaps more holdouts, such as Ottawa's Alexei Yashin refusing to honor the final year on his contract, worth $3.5 million.

Lack of Star Power

The Stanley Cup champion Dallas Stars have floundered this season, and much has been made of their injury woes. But according to one member of the organization, there are four simple reasons for the team's problems: key players Brett Hull, Mike Modano, Darryl Sydor and Sergei Zubov (who were a combined minus-20 as recently as a week ago). Such offensive-minded players often have sparred with demanding coach Ken Hitchcock, who finally seemed to have persuaded the entire team to buy into his defense-first, defense-second, defense-always system last season. But Modano and Hull have been complaining about the system again lately, bemoaning the lack of creativity.

"It's not the injuries," the Stars source said. "We're not any more banged up than last season. Last season we played without [Joe] Nieuwendyk and Modano, and we were the best team in the league. The reason is simple--four guys aren't showing up and playing hard enough to win. In this league you can't have that. If your top guys don't show up you can't win. That's our problem."

The Stars have won four in a row, clawing out victories against the dregs of the league, but aren't playing anything close to the brand of hockey that made them champions.

Hasek's Long Odds

Buffalo goalie Dominik Hasek is a long shot to return from his groin injury in January. Word is circulating he might be done for the season, which would prompt the 34-year-old to delay his impending retirement for a season. In the meantime, rookie Martin Biron is acquiring essential experience and should be a worthy successor to the greatest goalie in the world. . . .

With Senators Chairman and Governor Rod Bryden putting his team on the market last week, many hockey people expect Houston to formulate the best offer, but Las Vegas remains a dark horse. . . . Anaheim once sold out 90 of 93 games with minimal marketing and one of the lowest payrolls in the NHL. But Disney refuses to add to the team's depth, and the fans are responding. The team has set a franchise low for attendance three times this season, and the Pond is often half full, though the team continues to inflate the announced crowd. Attendance is a problem with at least one-fourth of the league. . . .

Expansion Atlanta is undergoing a front office shake-up, sources said. Harvey Schiller, the team's president, is headed to New York to become chairman of the Nets and Yankees, while Dave Maggard, its executive vice president, will be moving back to California, sources said.