TORONTO – It's kind of like Groundhog Day for players across the National Hockey League.
Locked out of their jobs since early Sunday morning, the annual gear-up to training camp across North America has instead been replaced with more of the same, a frustrating and seemingly endless batch of off-season training.
"I've got to admit to you," Leafs player representative Dave Steckel told TSN.ca by phone from Columbus, Ohio earlier this week, "it's getting pretty old working out and skating every day with no end in sight.
"It just makes for a longer summer in general and to be honest, we've already had a long enough one in Toronto."
It's at this point in September that the real itch for competition typically returns, players thirsty for a trip back to the game they cherish. But with the maddening prospect of yet another work stoppage under Gary Bettman's watch upon them, they face what looms as a largely uncertain future. September 15th, the date of expiration for the last collective bargaining agreement, was portrayed by Bettman and the league as a significant day, citing ensuing damage to "the game and to the business of the game". But for players like Steckel, September 21st is the real date that matters, the Friday when training camps across the league are officially supposed to begin.
If and when that day comes to pass with no deal still in place, a jolt of reality is likely to hit with the threat of missing games a near certainty.
"The best way that I'm going to approach it is to go week by week," said Steckel. "I think that's honestly the only way you can do it."
European leagues have already attracted a number of NHL players with the total growing by the day. Steckel has an eye toward competition overseas, but plans to stick around this continent until November, hopeful an agreement can be reached before that point. "I know guys have already signed over there, but going to Europe becomes a more realistic option as the weeks go by, at least for me anyways," he said. "I'm still hoping that we're going to reach an agreement here in the near future. I don't think it's too far off for anybody to ask and commit to. I think at this point, it's just day by day, week by week, prepare like there's going to be a season next week."
After participating in the Players' Association meetings in New York last week, Steckel is back with his wife and daughter at his summer home in the Buckeye State. He continues to skate daily with a group of players (including NHLers) at the OhioHealth Ice Haus, completing each day with a workout at the gym of his old stomping grounds, the Ohio State University. As player rep for the Leafs, it's his job to ensure that communication from the Players' Association reaches each and every one of his teammates, making for what should be at the very least, a well-informed opposition to Bettman and the owners.
For now, he and other unemployed peers across the league will continue to skate, continue to train, effectively studying for a test that may not come any time soon.
"That's a good analogy," Steckel concluded with what humour he could manage, "couldn't have said it better myself."