The Iceberg is visible on the horizon, but that didn't stop passengers on the good ship NHL from rearranging the deck furniture last week. On Thursday, a day after a fruitless session of collective bargaining between union and league representatives, a panel of 25 players, coaches and executives convened in New York City to discuss possible rules changes. Said Devils goalie Martin Brodeur, "A couple of players were like, 'It's kind of hard to get ready for this because there's so much uncertainty for the season.' "
Uncertainty is one word for what surrounds the NHL; chaos is another. The current labor agreement expires on Sept. 15, and next season is likely to be delayed or wholly consumed by a lockout. No one has a clue what the new economic system will look like (the owners hope for a salary cap of about $35 million), so the free-agent market is glacial. Says Boston G.M. Mike O'Connell, "Everyone is gambling a bit."
Players are hedging their bets. Bruins captain Joe Thornton, a restricted free agent without an NHL contract, will play in Switzerland if there's a lockout. (The deal contains an escape clause.) Red Wings All-Star center Pavel Datsyuk has a pact with a Russian team. Another option: the upstart World Hockey Association, which held a draft last month—NHL MVP Martin St. Louis was among those chosen—and hopes to play by October.
Not everyone has those options. Employees at the NHL offices in New York, Toronto, Montreal and New Jersey were informed last week that more than half of them will be laid off in September if a labor deal isn't reached. Flyers assistant coaches' salaries will be trimmed by 50% and the club's broadcasters have been told they're free to look for other jobs. The Maple Leafs front office will be hit with 25% salary reductions if the league is still on ice in January. Other teams aren't waiting: The Stars have let two dozen staffers go, the Capitals nearly 20 and the Hurricanes 15. Then there's Ontario stickmaker TPS Hockey, which cut a fifth of its 125-person staff due to a lack of NHL orders. "Our retail line isn't enough to keep us going," says chief financial officer Randy McNeil. "Unfortunately some of our employees will have extended summer vacations."