CANONSBURG, Pa. - Sidney Crosby can't even get through a conversation with his grandmother without the topic being raised.
A phone call back to Nova Scotia over Thanksgiving weekend inevitably veered toward the status of the NHL's collective bargaining talks and included the three-billion dollar question being asked throughout the hockey world: When will the season start?
"It's all anybody wants to talk about," Crosby said Thursday.
That includes the Pittsburgh Penguins captain, who patiently fielded questions from reporters after skating in virtual anonymity at a suburban practice facility. It was a morning where he should have been preparing for the season opener—Friday's game against the Islanders was one of six Penguins games that has already been wiped out by the lockout—but instead found himself going through drills with a handful of teammates.
They are the optimistic few who are staying in town with hopes that a settlement will soon be reached and training camp can open. At this point, Crosby isn't even willing to entertain the notion that the work stoppage could threaten the entire season.
"I can't see it getting to that point, I really can't," he told The Canadian Press. "It hasn't even crossed my mind to be honest with you. I think, if anything, my thoughts are more just about whether the NHL has a date in mind (for the season to start) and just when they're actually going to start negotiating."
It didn't happen this week during two days of meetings between the league and NHL Players' Association in New York. Those sides broke off talks on Thursday afternoon and again reported no progress in their ongoing stalemate.
The first two weeks of the regular season have already been wiped out and cost the NHL almost US$250 million in lost revenue, according to deputy commissioner Bill Daly.
Much of Crosby's optimism is rooted in the growth he's seen during seven years in the league. He was skating with the QMJHL's Rimouski Oceanic during the 2004-05 lockout and helped propel the sport to new heights when the "new" NHL returned the following season.
"There's a lot of momentum," said Crosby. "I just really hope that the (owners) aren't taking that for granted. At the end of the day, I think hockey's in a good place and everyone's done a lot of good things to get it there. ...
"It would be pretty unfortunate for negotiation tactics or something like that to really ruin things."
The timing of the current lockout is particularly tough for Crosby, who was limited to just 63 regular-season games the last two seasons because of concussion symptoms. He's now feeling better than ever—"I've come a long way"—but believes all of the time he spent on the sidelines recently has helped him stay patient during negotiations.
Crosby certainly looked as though he hadn't missed a beat while being put through skating and stickhandling drills by a local skills instructor on Thursday. Wearing the black NHLPA-issued sweater that has become the uniform of locked-out players around North America, he weaved powerfully through pylons with his signature skating stride.
Other than the talent on the ice it could have been any session in any small-town arena, with only about a dozen fans watching from the seats. Three of them wore No. 87 sweaters.
It appears as though this will remain Crosby's reality for the foreseeable future as the cost of insurance on the $104.4-million, 12-year extension he signed this summer makes Europe a less appealing option for him than others. He could find himself overseas eventually, but it would likely only happen if the entire NHL season was cancelled.
"I don't have a date in mind," said Crosby.
His entire focus is devoted to staying sharp in case a new CBA comes together quickly. Crosby was among 20 NHLers who spent last week training at altitude in Vail, Colo., with Andy O'Brien and he's been skating four times per week with teammates during his time in Pittsburgh.
"Even when you don't see a lot of progress in negotiations, that can't change what you do as far as how you prepare," said Crosby. "I think it's important to just kind of remind yourself of that."
And so the face of the NHL waits along with everyone else.
Crosby would prefer to believe that the owners are committed to making a deal, but like many fellow players he can't help but wonder if the lockout was something they long ago decided to use as a means to coax a better deal out of the union.
"That's how negotiations work sometimes," he said.
Crosby sat in on the Aug. 14 negotiating session in Toronto when the NHLPA presented its initial proposal and flew to New York last month for a gathering of almost 300 players just before the lockout. He's also keeping close tabs on the daily progress of talks and is confident the sides will find something that works sooner rather than later.
"It's still early," said Crosby. "There's time for decisions to be made and to make sure that nobody does anything that they're going to regret."