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September 15, 2004 - The usual buzzing turns to brooding

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The usual buzzing turns to brooding

At the Flyers' practice center, some players struggled to work while others simply cleared out their lockers.

Inquirer Staff Writer

The mood was glum, interrupted occasionally by some gallows humor. The impending lockout by the NHL owners is less than 24 hours away, but pessimism had settled in long ago.

Normally at this time of year, with the Flyers' training camp scheduled to open tomorrow, the team's practice facility at the Skate Zone in Voorhees would be buzzing with action. Instead, some players quietly lifted weights, others started cleaning out their lockers, and a few laced up the skates.

For months, the talk of a lockout has hung over them like threatening rain clouds. Now the time is here, and the reality of the situation has hit the players like a Tie Domi uppercut.

"People talked two or three years ago about this situation, but now the time is here and it really hits you," said former Flyers defenseman Chris Therien, who is an unsigned free agent but still works out at the training center. "This is probably not getting done for a while."

The NHL's collective bargaining agreement expires at 12:01 a.m. tomorrow. In New York today, the NHL's Board of Governors is expected to authorize a lockout under commissioner Gary Bettman.

There is a Grand Canyon-size gap between the players association and the owners. Bettman remains intent on instituting a $31 million salary cap. The union has maintained that it won't agree to a salary cap. That means by tomorrow, the doors at the Skate Zone will be open for youth hockey players, for the public, for the Philadelphia Phantoms, but probably not for the Flyers.

"One more day and you guys won't be allowed in here," left winger Todd Fedoruk said to reporters, attempting to force a gap-toothed smile while delivering the line.

Then one responded: "You are the guys who won't be allowed here."

There wasn't the usual locker-room banter yesterday. A few current and former players drifted in and out, getting their work in.

At this point, all the money in the world doesn't seem capable of buying the players what they want most - the chance to practice together tomorrow or anytime soon.

"This is in our blood, and we are motivated to get up in the morning and go out and skate," captain Keith Primeau said. "We've been doing this since we were 4 or 5."

This is not only a bad time to be an NHL player, but an even worse time to be an unsigned free agent. That's the position Therien finds himself in. He was a Flyer for 10 years before being dealt to the Dallas Stars on March 8 for two draft choices.

He maintains a residence in Evesham and has been a frequent participant at the Skate Zone while rehabilitating after shoulder surgery.

Therien said his shoulder was fine, but his psyche was a different story. "It's a terrible year to be a free agent," he said. "I had some potential offers, but once it got to August, teams weren't willing to do much."

Therien was clearing out his sticks and equipment in anticipation of a lockout.

Worse than anything, the players and owners realize the effect this will have on hockey, which will take a huge public-relations hit.

"It's a big concern for everybody," left winger John LeClair said when asked whether a lockout would kill the sport. "The popularity of hockey isn't that of the other major sports."

While the fan base is smaller, it is tremendously loyal. Beginning today, that loyalty appears ready for another major test.

Loose pucks. Defenseman Joni Pitkanen did not play in Finland's World Cup of Hockey medal-round games. "I am very disappointed, but I understand how it works," Pitkanen said. "I am young, and Finland has a lot of players who have been in these kind of tournaments five or six times. So they have earned the right."