While many Washington Capitals fretted over their sport's labor woes during the offseason, Jeff Halpern blocked out those thoughts by focusing on preparing for the World Cup of Hockey. Halpern wanted to help Team USA defend its championship.
But when the U.S. run ended with a semifinal defeat last Friday in St. Paul, Minn., the feelings Halpern had suppressed all summer consumed him as he left Xcel Energy Center. "What now?" he recalled thinking.
"When I realized I might have played my last hockey for a while, I was sick to my stomach," Halpern, a native of Potomac, said. "It's kind of like the feeling you get when the season ends after a loss in the playoffs. It was the same feeling, but now you don't know when the season is going to start up, for who knows how long."
At first, Halpern was angry, then he was frustrated. Now, one day after NHL owners imposed a lockout that threatens the entire 2004-05 season and beyond, Halpern, one of the Capitals' union representatives, said he is deeply saddened.
"I'm frustrated with the owners," the 28-year-old center said. "The players want to play. This is not a strike, the owners are locking us out."
Today should have been a busy day for Halpern and the Capitals organization. The parking lot at Piney Orchard Ice Arena should have been nearly filled by early afternoon as players, coaches, the general manager, the scouting staff and half a dozen front-office employees arrived at work for the first day of training camp. Instead, the parking lot is almost certain to be empty.
The lockout -- which the NHL imposed with the owners and players' union deeply divided over a new collective bargaining agreement -- will touch every one of the club's approximately 50 employees, from veteran players who won't collect their paychecks to young prospects who had hoped to earn roster spot to front-office workers, trainers and equipment managers. Some employees in the organization may lose their jobs if a resolution is not in sight by the first week in January.
Like many of his teammates, Halpern will stay at home initially. But if the sides don't reach an agreement soon, Halpern will weigh his options, which include playing overseas. Halpern said his agents, Mike Liut and Brian Lawton, are organizing a team composed of their NHL clients to play exhibition games in Finland next month.
Capitals right wing Dainius Zubrus, meantime, has followed the route many European players have taken. In July, Zubrus, who does not have a contract with Washington but whose rights still belong to the club, signed a contract with Lada Togliatti of the Russian Super League. He arrived in Russia on Wednesday and played in his first game last night, according to Zubrus's agent, Dmitri Goryachkin. Zubrus's contract does contain a provision allowing him to return to the Capitals when a new collective bargaining agreement is in place, provided he signs a new deal with Washington.
Rastislav Stana, who would have battled for the backup goaltending job, has signed to play for a club in Sweden, which is also the likely destination for defenseman Josef Boumedienne. Alexander Ovechkin, the Capitals' No. 1 overall draft choice in June, will continue playing for Moscow Dynamo in Russia.
Playing abroad is not an option for some players, especially those with young families, such as Brendan Witt, Olaf Kolzig and Jason Doig. They said they'll spend their time playing dad, a luxury they don't normally enjoy because of the rigors of the NHL's 82-game regular season. Witt said complications securing an insurance policy to cover him while playing in Europe also weighed heavily on his decision to remain at home.
"Suppose you get hurt?" Witt said. "Then what do you do? It's too much of a chance, especially when you have a family and you are signed by an NHL team. . . . If I were single and [a free agent], I'd probably be over there already."
Witt and Doig said they will skate at a rink near their homes in Jupiter, Fla., and Montreal, respectively. They'll be joined on most days by other NHL players who live nearby.
Witt said he's been skating with Tampa Bay's Dan Boyle, Florida's Darcy Hordichuk and Colorado's Peter Worrell. "We do drills, get in a good skate, maybe some four-on-four if we get enough guys out. It's not ideal, but I've got to stay in shape. If you didn't skate every day, as a professional, you wouldn't be doing your job. You never know when [the season] will start."
That, however, doesn't appear likely anytime soon. The players say they have no intention of bending to the owners' demands of a new economic system for the NHL that will restrain the rampant growth of players' salaries. Many owners, including Ted Leonsis of the Capitals, have said that they will lose less money if no hockey is played this season.
Although the players' semi-monthly paychecks won't be deposited two weeks from now, it may take a while before they feel the economic pinch. Both sides have been socking away cash in preparation for a lockout. Witt and Doig said they've heeded the union's warnings and reigned in their spending in recent years in anticipation of a protracted lockout.
"In the past you might buy a house in Washington and in your home town, buy some cars, maybe take some nice vacations," Doig said. "But guys I know have been more cautious."
Said Witt, who was awarded $2.2 million in salary arbitration in August: "I won't be hurting. But it'll be different for a guy who just broke into the league."
Washington is stocked with young players, and because of that, is actually positioned to benefit from a long lockout. Prospects Boyd Gordon, Steve Eminger, Alexander Semin, Brooks Laich, Tomas Fleischmann, Jakub Klepis, Jonas Johansson and Shaone Morrisonn will likely begin the season with the Capitals' American Hockey League affiliate in Portland, Maine, where General Manager George McPhee said the plan is for them to "grow up together."
"We couldn't be better positioned for the future than we are right now," McPhee said. "We'll have eight first-round picks playing in Portland, something I don't know has ever happened."
The lockout actually means more road trips for McPhee, Coach Glen Hanlon and the team's scouting staff. They will crisscross North America and Europe scouting the Capitals' prospects and familiarizing themselves with players from other teams. Hanlon will also visit many of the organization's recent draft picks in an effort to get to know them better.
Although many teams have laid off significant portions of their staffs -- the NHL plans to dismiss about 55 percent of its staff at league headquarters in coming days -- Capitals employees will keep their jobs and continue to collect their full salaries. But if the season is canceled, nearly everyone's status will be reviewed, said Kurt Kehl, a Capitals spokesman.
Communications department employees will spend their time completing the media guide, filling gaps in the team's historical records and working on other projects they wouldn't normally have had time to undertake. Members of the Piney Orchard-based training and equipment staffs will also be retained.
"A lockout is not good for anyone," Halpern said. "The longer it goes, the more it's going to affect the game's future. Different people have different opinions about what's going to happen. As we're all finding out, the business side of this game can be pretty ugly."