BY GEORGE RICHARDS
With the NHL's lockout in its third week, some players have moved on either to the North American minor leagues or other professional leagues in Europe.
A hardy group of about 10 have remained in South Florida.
And they don't appear to be going anywhere -- at least not just yet.
"Honestly, this group is having a good time together,'' goalie Jose Theodore said. "We're in Florida so that's pretty good. It's starting to get cold everywhere else. We're coming here and working hard -- and it's not the best scenario, I would rather be playing games -- but afterward we can play tennis or golf. We're making the best out of a bad situation.''
The 10 players who gather at the Panthers' training facility three times a week have been part of what was a larger group that's been skating since August.
Despite the monotonous pace -- center Stephen Weiss calls these sessions "brutal" -- this group of players show up to keep their bodies in shape for when the lockout ends.
And although it doesn't seem training camp will open any time soon, the work needs to be done.
"We come in here and know who will be here each day,'' Panthers forward Tomas Kopecky said. "It's actually good for us physically because you are used to getting rest between drills. Here, there aren't enough players for that. You just keep going and going. It's real good for our cardio.''
Kopecky and Tomas Fleischmann have resisted going to play in Europe so far, although Kopecky says he has offers.
With one child in the third grade and another in preschool, Kopecky says he would rather spend quality time with his family than move back to Europe until the lockout ends.
He's not alone, at least for now.
Ed Jovanovski, Tomas Vokoun, Roberto Luongo, Marco Sturm and Radek Dvorak all make their home in South Florida and are in familiar environs. The longer the lockout goes, however, playing anywhere becomes more attractive.
The players who take part in the informal workouts rent the ice from the Panthers -- the going rate is $350 per hour -- and pay their own equipment manager who keeps things running smoothly.
The players are banned from using the Panthers locker room or weight room -- and can't even borrow the team's stick room if alterations need to be made as was the case Monday.
"This isn't ideal but what is right now,'' Theodore said. "Being able to spend time with your friends and family is worthwhile though.''
In some more traditional markets -- like Toronto and Minneapolis -- NHL players have little problem getting large groups together.
This, obviously, is not the case in South Florida where there seem to be more ex-Panthers (Vokoun, Luongo, Dvorak, Sturm) working out in Coral Springs than current ones.
"We have had the same group, pretty much, for a while,'' said Dvorak, who played for Dallas last season but is a free agent and hopes to sign on soon after the lockout ends. "I think it's been good. This is hard work and that is what we need. Having 10 guys isn't a lot but it is what it is until the big boys settle this thing.''
There is little doubt these hockey players would much rather be playing hockey than doing what they are doing.
Florida defenseman Mike Weaver and instructor Gus Dumoulin run the hour-long practices each week although both are running out of drills to keep everyone sharp.
And even though the numbers have dwindled, Kopecky says as long as there are a handful of players still around, the informal workouts will continue.
Based on how talks have gone between the players and owners, well, they could be out here for some time. On Tuesday, the Panthers postponed their kickoff dinner to benefit charity and the opening week of games are expected to be cancelled any time.
Florida is scheduled to open its season against the Lightning on Oct. 13. Training camp and all seven preseason games have been wiped out. The Panthers would have played their sixth exhibition game Thursday in Tampa with the preseason finale held Saturday night in Sunrise.
"When this thing does get done, training camp probably isn't going to be two weeks long,'' Jovanovski said. "It's going to be a pretty quick turnaround into the games. As older players, training camp can be long anyway. Getting all the games in during a shortened time frame can be tough on the body. We have to be ready.''