BY GEORGE RICHARDS
Friday should have been a busy day at the Panthers training facility in Coral Springs.
Yet instead of having close to 50 hockey players running around the main part of the building as training camp got under way, only an injured Kris Versteeg was spotted roaming the halls.
"Just me and a couple of rats,'' Versteeg joked. "It's a little weird.''
A number of Versteeg's teammates were on the ice Friday afternoon, doing their best to stay in shape during a work stoppage that will enter its second week on Sunday.
The players, locked out by the league for the third time since 1994, aren't allowed to have any contact with the Panthers nor use any of the facilities. The players are paying the Panthers out of their own pocket for use of the ice.
Versteeg, who is undergoing rehabilitation after needing offseason surgery, is not considered locked out and can come and go as he pleases. Versteeg has spent a lot of time catching up with his teammates.
"None of us want this,'' said defenseman Mike Weaver, the Panthers' union representative. "The players don't want this and I'm pretty sure the Florida Panthers organization don't want this. We had a good season last year and were ready to build on that. Our fans are ready to come back.''
Aside from physicals, the Panthers were scheduled to have their first practice as a team on Saturday morning. Unbelievably, the Panthers were to hold their first preseason game on Monday.
Because of the lockout, everything is on hold.
"This is the nature of the beast, something we've been talking about for months,'' veteran Ed Jovanovski said. "We're in a situation in which we need patience. I don't think we have 2004 on our hands. I'm optimistic something will get done sooner than later. As a member of the union, I believe this is a very meaningful deal that should help both sides and grow the game. Hockey is healthy right now. You wish everyone could see that.''
Although the informal workouts are scheduled to resume next week, the herd will be thinned. A handful of players are leaving for training camp in the Triple-A American Hockey League while others are looking overseas.
Center Marcel Goc was the first to leave, signing a deal with former Panthers defenseman Dennis Seidenberg to play in their native Germany. Sean Bergenheim likely left the facility Friday for the last time before the lockout ends as he is headed to his home country of Finland.
"No one knows how long this thing is going to take,'' Goc said Wednesday. "The earlier I start playing the better. We're on our own.''
Said Bergenheim: "I want to play and I have some options. I'm just looking for what's best for my family. It would be nice to go home because it's been a long time since I've played there.''
Defenseman Dmitry Kulikov is also close to leaving as his agent is working on a deal in Russia. Kulikov is said to be returning to Lokomotiv Yaroslavl -- the Russian team which owned his rights when the Panthers drafted him 14th overall in 2009.
Lokomotiv was the team that suffered the tragic plane crash last summer that cost 43 lives including those of former Panthers Karlis Skrastins, Ruslan Salei and Alexander Karpovtsev.
All players who play in Europe still belong to the Panthers once the lockout is lifted; players are negotiating out clauses into their European contracts.
"I want to play somewhere and not just watch television,'' Kulikov said. "It could be nice to get experience in another league. I've only played big-league hockey in the NHL. This will be a cool challenge.''
For players like goalie Dov Grumet-Morris and Nolan Yonkman, Friday's workout was their last before the structure of training camp returns. Both players are due in San Antonio this weekend for the start of training camp with the AHL Rampage.
For Grumet-Morris, the move to San Antonio is bittersweet. While he's happy to have a job playing hockey, he knows he lost out on an opportunity. This would have been the first NHL training camp the 30-year-old journeyman would have participated in.
"Most hockey players are creatures of habit, so the guys who have been assigned to San Antonio are happy to get going,'' Grumet-Morris said. "I feel fortunate to get back to San Antonio. But the thing is, I don't have any control over anything -- I don't even have a vote in the NHLPA. I was taught long ago not to worry about things you can't control.''
-- Versteeg, who had hip surgery shortly after last season ended, skated on his own Friday morning. He said he has done light skating about six times since having surgery. He is expected to be ready to play in November.
"I'm starting to feel OK, getting my movement back,'' Versteeg said.