DeCock: Dwindling group of players skates on

ldecock@newsobserver.comDecember 13, 2012 

CANES04.SP.111412.CCS

The Carolina Hurricanes Cam Ward gathers in the puck after making a stop during a pick-up game as some of the Carolina Hurricanes players practice on their own at Raleigh Center Ice in Raleigh, NC on Nov. 14, 2012. The NHL is still not playing because of a labor dispute.

CHRIS SEWARD — cseward@newsobserver.com

— They’ll keep skating until all hope is lost, one stride at a time. The group has dwindled as optimism has faded, but there were still eight NHL players on the ice at Raleigh Center Ice on Wednesday.

“We have to be ready,” Carolina Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward said, with a resigned shrug. Ready. Just in case. If.

As negotiators for the NHL and NHL Players Association met with federal mediators in a secret location, attendance at the very public workouts conducted by the Hurricanes and other local players continues to decrease.

Eric Staal is gone, although his brother Jordan is still around. Jay Harrison, a frequent participant, wasn’t on the ice Wednesday. Jussi Jokinen skated at RCI but plans to head back to Finland this week.

That left eight players on the ice: Ward, Jokinen, Jordan Staal, Joe Corvo, Joni Pitkanen and Anthony Stewart from the Hurricanes; Peter Harrold of the New Jersey Devils and Kevin Westgarth of the Los Angeles Kings.

Even the crowd in the stands is down to the bare minimum. Fans once flocked to these workouts, in September when there was still a chance of starting the season on time and in October in attempt to fill the yawning hockey void. Wednesday, there were only four hard-core regulars watching the skeleton crew work out.

In many ways, the scene at Raleigh Center Ice is a microcosm of the NHL at large: slowly disintegrating, but held together by a lingering core of stubborn optimism in the face of overwhelming negativity.

No one knows the state of the game – and why it remains on enforced hiatus – better than Westgarth, a key member of the NHLPA’s negotiating committee. He has been actively involved in some of the most sensitive discussions, and was widely credited for working with Calgary Flames owner Murray Edwards to forge a breakthrough on pension contributions in last week’s meetings.

That’s one of the remaining points of discussion, along with the length of the new labor agreement, contract lengths and the overall split of revenue between owners and players.

“We’re a lot closer than we were a week ago on all those issues,” Westgarth said. “There’s no arguing that. It’s getting very close. That being said, it seems like both sides are digging in their heels a little bit.”

Westgarth, who is married to Bill Cowher’s daughter Meagan and lives in Raleigh during the offseason, didn’t attend Wednesday’s secret meetings because he’s been traveling too much – for negotiations and charity hockey games – and needed to get back home and back on the ice.

So he was there, part of a dwindling crowd still clinging to hope owners and players will be able to put rhetoric aside and get back on the ice, as time inexorably runs out.

“I just shake my head,” Westgarth said. “It’s incredibly unfortunate to see where we are.”

Jokinen has had two stints playing in Finland already but came back to Raleigh both times, in hopes a deal would soon be done. He’s heading back now, for how long no one knows.

“Merry Christmas!” Jokinen called as he exited the front door of Raleigh Center Ice. If he’s right – if he’s still in his homeland for the holidays – it will be a long winter for the NHL indeed.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, Twitter: @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947

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