It is shortly after 9 a.m., and Pascal Dupuis is running the steps inside the Penguins' practice facility at Southpointe.
Wearing a weighted vest, he charges up the 30 or so steps that run through the bleachers, then makes a U-turn at the top and races back down.
Focus. Perspire. Repeat.
And, when Dupuis takes a break to douse the burning in his legs and lungs, Matt Cooke takes his place.
Same routine. Same number of reps. Same incentive.
OK, their workout attire Wednesday was different -- Dupuis wore long sleeves and long-legged pants, while Cooke donned shorts, a T-shirt and a Penguins cap -- but their motivation was identical: To be ready for the start of training camp Sept. 21. Or whenever it turns out to be.
Which, given the state of negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement in the NHL, isn't even a lock to happen in 2012, let alone in 15 days. Nonetheless, eight players -- forwards James Neal, Chris Kunitz, Craig Adams and Eric Tangradi and defensemen Matt Niskanen and Ben Lovejoy were the others -- convened at Southpointe Wednesday morning for another in a series of informal workouts, on and off the ice, to prepare for the season ahead.
They went through a series of drills, then played a little full-ice four-on-four and some cross-rink three-on-three before most adjourned to the weight room.
That's pretty standard stuff at this time of year. The difference is that, with no labor talks since Friday and none scheduled, even incurable optimists are starting to question whether a new CBA can be in place before the current one expires Sept. 15.
"Talks have kind of fizzled out a little bit," said Adams, the Penguins' player rep. "So. unless something changes in the near future, it's looking tougher and tougher to get it done by the 15th."
Of course, the 15th is, in some ways, an artificial deadline, because camps aren't supposed to open until six days later. In theory, a deal could be forged between the 15th and the 21st, and the preseason could proceed on schedule.
"Camp starts on the 21st," Dupuis said. "That's the only day I can focus on."
The truth is, it's not much of a stretch to suggest that all those confident a new CBA will be in place before the scheduled start of camp could carpool to the next negotiating session on a unicycle. Still, regardless of how unlikely it is that the preseason will begin on time, players don't have the luxury of cutting back on, let alone abandoning, their preparations.
"It's how we earn a living for our families," Cooke said. "Whether it's Sept. 15, Sept. 21, Oct. 10 -- whatever the date is -- we still have to be ready. And you can't do that sitting around doing nothing."
Bleak as the short-term outlook for a settlement appears to be, players who went through the league's most recent labor dispute -- a lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season -- say things don't seem quite as grim this time.
Cooke attributed that to the players being more unified now -- "The players are united," he said. "That's something that's completely different than it was last time" -- while Adams suggested the gap between the parties doesn't look to be quite as great as it was eight years ago.
"Right or wrong, we're more optimistic that it can get figured out, sooner rather than later," he said. "I don't know where that optimism comes from, but I think that's the general feeling. And I hope it's true."
Meanwhile, guys like Cooke and Dupuis will continue to strap on weighted vests and run the steps. Others will lift weights and train to improve flexibility and agility. All will get on the ice just about every day.
Because while there's no guarantee camp will begin on time, there's still no guarantee it won't, either.
NOTES -- Even though no negotiating sessions are scheduled, members of the NHL Players' Association are scheduled to meet in New York Wednesday and Thursday, while the NHL Board of Governor will convene there Thursday. ... The NHL's annual media tour, in which prominent players make promotional visits to major outlets before camp opens, has been postponed indefinitely.
First Published September 6, 2012 4:15 AM