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The season and a career on the brink

Dave Andreychuk sits in the corner of a tiny locker room at the Ice Sports Forum. He yanks off his skates, rips the tape away from his shin guards, rolls it into a sticky, lopsided ball and attempts a 3-pointer at the garbage pale in the middle of the room. He grabs a towel and runs it over his face and head, wiping away the sweat from an hour workout.

He has been doing this for nearly 40 years. It's anyone's guess how much longer he will do it.

At 41 years old, with the NHL season in jeopardy because of an owners' lockout, the Lightning captain has had this recurring thought: I might have played my last NHL game.

"I've made a commitment to this team. I've signed a (one-year) deal, and if the season were to start up, I'm going to be there," Andreychuk said.

But what if doesn't start up? What if the lockout wipes out the season? What if the next NHL season starts next September? That's when that thought creeps into his brain again.

I might have played my last NHL game.

"I'd have to see how I felt," Andreychuk said. "Taking a full year off if the season goes down, I'd have to see how I felt mentally as I'm training and getting ready to go again. You got to remember, I'll be 42 years old at that time. And it would be tough for me, especially taking a year off."

But a year off could help. The body could heal. The mind could get refreshed. He could recharge the competitive battery.

Andreychuk tries to play along. He considers it, nods his head, tries to sound optimistic. But, deep down, optimism is cross-checked by reality.

"I do feel better now not going through the grind of the season, but I've also lost a little bit," Andreychuk said. "It's hard to tell now, but I feel like my game is not where it was at the end of last year."

There are subtle signs that only Andreychuk recognizes. The hands have slowed just a smidge. His first step to a loose puck isn't quite as quick. His reflexes are just a notch behind.

Maybe it's just rust from having not played since Game 7 of last year's Stanley Cup final in May. Then again, maybe it's just part of the aging process. Add another year, and another few months of not playing real hockey, and the rust will only mount. Andreychuk knows that.

That's why he isn't predicting his future. Instead, he's enjoying the present. He drives his three daughters to school every day. He attends their basketball games and dance recitals and cheerleading practices. For one of the few times in his life, he spent Christmas at home with his family in Ontario.

Back in the Toronto-Hamilton area, the NHL is sorely missed. He was stopped by fans wanting to know when hockey would return. They asked pointed questions about salary caps and luxury taxes and arbitration rights.

In Tampa Bay, though, Andreychuk rarely hears about the lockout.

"I think here in Tampa, we're most hurt by what's going on," Andreychuk said. "We won the Cup and the next year there should be a lot of momentum on our side. We got a lot of people at the end of the year just getting into it. Will they come back? They'll come back in Canada. Here in Tampa, we got a lot of people on our side and we're going to lose some of them. There are some teams that are going to lose some fan base because of it. That's a shame."

Andreychuk feels for the little guy _ the ushers, ticket-takers, parking lot attendants. He feels for the restaurants, bars and hotels losing business without hockey.

"The trickledown effect is unbelieveable," Andreychuk said. "It's not just fans, it's not just the players, there are a lot more people affected by it."

Three days a week, he skates for an hour or so with Lightning teammates, including Nolan Pratt, John Grahame, Chris Dingman and Cory Sarich. He's trying to stay in shape for a season that might never come.

"I still feel we're going to have one more push to try to get things going," Andreychuk said. "Everyone kind of realizes that we just can't sit by and wait for this thing to go down. Obviously, it has got to happen quickly, but I hope talks will open again and maybe we can come to some sort of agreement."

Having played in the NHL for 22 seasons, Andreychuk is one the union's wisemen. But, so far, he has stayed away from the talks. He gets updates from union representative Tim Taylor. Occasionally, he will tell teammates about something that happened during the last lockout in 1994 when, as Andreychuk points out, he was in the prime of his career.

But seeing as how he might never play under a new collective bargaining agreement, he feels he should keep his opinions to a minimum.

"This deal that is going to come about is not going to affect me," Andreychuk said. "But I will tell you that there are going to be jobs lost because of it. Some fringe players are not going to come back. They'll be replaced by younger players. So those are the guys who are going to get hurt. As a veteran player, I don't want to say a canceled season or (a new CBA) is easier for me to swallow, but I'm more prepared for it."

Andreychuk knows his career is nearing an end. He considered retiring last summer. He's prepared financially for the future. A coaching job with the Lightning is waiting when he does retire.

When will that be? He isn't sure. Maybe he has a few more goals left in his Hall of Fame career. Or maybe, he has played his last NHL game.

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