The Washington Capitals should be in Toronto getting ready for tonight's game with the Maple Leafs. Instead, they and the rest of the NHL teams are home, making plans for unwanted free time.
For the first time in 77 years, the NHL will not start on schedule.
Yesterday, the NHL "deferred" acting on the NHL Players Association's no-strike, no-lockout proposal that would have allowed the season to open today and continue uninterrupted through the postseason while collective bargaining contract talks continued.
"Everyone wants a full season, and from that standpoint, the Players Association's offer is particularly seductive," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said yesterday at a news conference in New York that was attended by representatives of 20 of the NHL's 26 teams. "But it is not acceptable in the current environment."
The environment Bettman describes is one of unprofitable teams, escalating salaries and a concern about the NHLPA's sincerity to negotiate in good faith.
He set a new opening day and negotiating deadline, Oct. 15, and said the owners would reconsider the players' no-strike proposal at that time.
"What we're saying is let's start negotiations now and see where we are in two weeks," Bettman said. "By then, we'll be in a better position to assess their offer."
Later yesterday, NHLPA director Bob Goodenow said negotiations between the two sides would resume, but that the union considers the current situation a lockout and their proposal rejected.
"It's an owners' lockout, pure and simple," Goodenow said. "We're frustrated by their inability to speak clearly and simply. But we're prepared to continue to negotiate."
The NHLPA will have a meeting of its union representatives and other interested players in Toronto today to formulate specific actions during the next 14 days. While Goodenow said he did not know what course players would decide to take, he was sure "players will not be participating in organized practices."
The scene was bizarre yesterday morning at Piney Orchard, the Capitals' training facility in Odenton. The players came out of a 10 a.m. meeting and began collecting their belongings and equipment and throwing it all into large duffel bags.
While the NHL had forbidden players to wear any NHLPA clothing throughout camp, yesterday the uniform of choice included burgundy NHLPA caps. The faces were serious, the resolve universal.
"I'm afraid it's going to be a long fight," said Capitals union representative Don Beaupre. "It's not going to be a case of a couple weeks. Look around. Everyone here is taking their stuff and making plans for the long term."
In Los Angeles, the league's biggest star agreed.
"Right now there are huge differences, and I just don't see hockey being played this year," Wayne Gretzky said.
Beaupre voiced the frustration the union feels, saying: "It's like we've been negotiating with ourselves. We've addressed their concerns and needs, sometimes to the point where we feel as if we're sticking our necks out to to do it, and it's still not what they want. They evidently want only what's best for them."
Capitals general manager David Poile, who was in New York for the NHL announcement, said that while he has no idea what the union will decide today or whether any players will show up at Piney Orchard on Monday, the team's training facility will be open for practice at 10:30 a.m.
"I think this is another opportunity for both sides to wake up and get a deal done," said Poile. "How hard do we have to get hit over the head to realize the trouble we're all in? Baseball is on strike, basketball is in trouble and now hockey isn't starting its season. We need to work together to solve this.
"And I don't think either side has a real grip on the problem. I don't think the players totally accept the financial state hockey is in, and I think we send mixed signals when teams continue to sign players for millions of dollars.
"Before we can reach an agreement, we have to agree on the problem. I keep thinking of that old line in 'Cool Hand Luke': 'We have a failure to communicate.' "
Kelly Miller, an NHLPA vice president and a member of the union negotiating team, Todd Krygier, the team's assistant union rep, Dave Poulin, Jim Johnson, Keith Jones and Beaupre planned to be in Toronto today for the NHLPA meeting.
"At this point, the union is basically telling us to disperse and prepare for a long one," said Miller, who added that the Capitals will hold a team meeting tomorrow.
In the meantime, the Capitals sent center Kevin Kaminski and rookie defenseman Ken Klee to their American Hockey League affiliate in Portland, Maine. They will play with the Pirates until a collective bargaining agreement is negotiated.
"No one wanted the NHL season to open more than me," said Klee, who made an NHL roster for the first time Monday. "I've been working my whole life to make the NHL. I started skating when I was 18 months old to get here. And now there is such an emptiness, it's hard to describe."