Panthers skate on, despite uncertain labor future
Stephen Weiss finished his workout Friday morning by skating two fast laps, then stepped off the ice and toward the Florida Panthers' dressing room.
Written on the doors: ''Authorized Personnel Only.''
Come 12:01 a.m. Sunday, they will almost certainly be locked - even to Weiss.
Weiss and about 20 other players were on the ice for an informal workout at the Panthers' training facility on Friday. Some are planning to return Monday, though the locker room and other team facilities would be off-limits if the lockout, as expected, begins when the current collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and its players expires on Saturday night.
''Fans pay their hard-earned money to come see us play and they're excited about the season to start, and when it's delayed like this they get frustrated as do the players and I'm sure the owners as well,'' Weiss said. ''All the more reason to keep working at it and come to an agreement as soon as possible and get our game back on the ice.''
It would be the NHL's fourth work stoppage in the last 20 years, coming not long after the league lost an entire season to labor strife and less than a year after the NBA lost 240 games because of a lockout.
But for more than an hour on Friday, those on the ice - mostly Panthers, though other attendees included former Florida goalie Tomas Vokoun (now with Pittsburgh) and New York Rangers prospect Andrew Yogan, a South Florida native - just kept getting ready for a season that might not start anytime soon.
''We're all in the same boat,'' Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said. ''I think we're all passionate about the game and we care about the game and we want what's best - which is to get on the ice as soon as possible, with the understanding that we're dealing with big business as well and decisions have to be made and rules need to be put in place that work for everyone involved.''
Dineen watched the workout from a glassed-in room at one end of the rink. If the team gets together to skate Monday as planned and the lockout is under way, he won't be allowed to even do that much.
At stake, of course, is money. Players currently receive 57 percent of hockey-related revenue, and the owners want to bring that number down as far as perhaps 47 percent - up from their original offer of 43 percent.
The union is seeking a guarantee of the $1.8 billion players received last season.
''It's up to the NHL. It's not our lockout. It's their lockout,'' said Florida defenseman Mike Weaver, the Panthers' player representative. ''We'd be fine under the last CBA they came up with. That was their CBA, the last CBA. And they said they made some mistakes.
''If your boss makes mistakes in a regular day, it's not like he's going to ask, `OK, we want some money back from you,''' Weaver said. ''He gave you a contract. These guys, these owners signed these guys to these big contracts maybe hoping they get a little rollback on them.''
Weaver said the Panthers have been preparing for the better part of two years for this reality. Ice time has been secured - by renting it, just like a rec hockey league would. Players will have access to a gym to condition and lift weights, since team facilities will be off-limits. Most of the Panthers, Weaver said, have even been kicking escrow money into an account that can be tapped into if the lockout lasts a while.
Many Florida players plan to stick around town for at least the short term, waiting to see what happens. Weiss said he hasn't examined playing overseas during the lockout, but said it's something he would have to consider if a work stoppage drags on too long.
''To be honest, we want what's best for our fans,'' Weaver said. ''We've got families, too. We want to play. Based on (the NHL's) proposals, they're not really playing fair right now.''
A lockout might be particularly hurtful to the South Florida market, which enjoyed a hockey rebirth of sorts last season when the Panthers snapped a 12-year playoff drought and won the Southeast Division title.
A championship banner over Florida's home ice is supposed to be raised in about four weeks.
Chances are, fans that waited more than a decade to see a night like that will just have to keep waiting.
''We had some sort of success last year and we're anxious to get back and start where we left off,'' Weiss said. ''So it is disappointing. But that's the nature of this business sometimes. These things need to be done and we'll be patient and make sure we'll get a deal that makes sense for both sides so we don't have to keep doing this every four or five years.''
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