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Original Issue

Long Winter Ahead NHL players and teams are preparing for an extended work stoppage

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."

COLOR PHOTO: JEROME DAVIS/ICON SMI (THORNTON) FREEZE OUT With NHL rinks likely empty, Thornton (below) islooking to Europe.