Every day for weeks now, Washington Capitals players have been working out on their own at the Piney Orchard Ice Rink in Odenton.
Yesterday, the word spread that league owners might lock them and their NHL brethren out of training camp, scheduled to open Sept. 4.
League sources confirmed a report in the Toronto Sun yesterday that said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman had asked for and received an "unequivocal mandate" to lock out the players if movement has not been made in the collective bargaining negotiations.
"Obviously, that's not good news," said Washington center Steve Konowalchuk, one of about 15 players at Piney Orchard. "I've been working out all summer to get ready for camp. A lot of us have. It would be awful. Hockey is growing right now, expanding. It's terrible timing."
The timing couldn't be worse. With major-league baseball players on strike, the start of NHL training camp could fill a void for sports fans.
As in baseball, the main sticking point in the hockey negotiations is a salary cap. Bettman insists he is not asking for one, but the NHL Players Association insists he is.
"I was at the last meeting," said Capitals goalie and player representative Don Beaupre. "And I must have heard five different ways of saying salary cap. Any time you tie revenues and salaries together, it is a salary cap.
"Obviously this is up to Gary Bettman. He's talking salary cap. If he wants to punish us for not agreeing to the salary cap by locking us out, well, it's a poor tactic and it will hurt the game."
NHL officials have said they don't want a repeat of 1992-93, when talk of a possible strike overshadowed the season. The players walked out near the end of the regular season and came back two weeks later, and owners blamed the walkout for diminished interest in the playoffs.
Bob Goodenow, the NHLPA executive director, said he has not received any notice of a lockout intention.
And at the NHL offices in New York, Arthur Pincus, the league's vice president for public relations, said, "Our intention is to make a deal, and that is our prime focus.
"We'll do what we have to to get a deal made and if this effort to reach an agreement falls apart, it won't be because the NHL has been demanding a salary cap."
The NHL describes what it wants as "a system that takes revenues, players" and all other aspects of the sport into consideration. The NHLPA wants the open market to set the salaries.
It has been reported that NHL sources say that for every $1 of revenue, teams now are paying $1.14 in salaries.
No meetings are scheduled between the two sides and, said Pincus, no agreement can be reached until "they come to the table and are willing to talk."
At Piney Orchard, defenseman Sylvain Cote said he believed the players' bank accounts are deep enough "to sit out the entire year, if that's what the owners decide they want us to do."
And Beaupre said while "the players will never accept a cap," he believes it would be "a lot easier" to think about helping the owners if they first would help themselves through revenue sharing.
"Everybody has to help out," Beaupre said. "But at our last meeting, Bettman said flat-out there is no way to get them to help each other. The owners have the power -- the money -- it's up to them to decide how they want to dish it out."