TORONTO -- For a month, National Hockey League players competing in the World Cup of Hockey have, for the most part, been cloistered from the darkening clouds settling over the sport of hockey.
On the eve of a Canada-Finland final that will be followed abruptly by a lockout, which is expected to scuttle at the very least a half of the 2004-05 season, those players are slowly, reluctantly preparing to emerge from the comfortable cocoon of top-level competition.
"Today we're on a high. We're thinking about the big game," said Team Canada's third goalie, Jose Theodore, on Tuesday morning. "I don't want to experience the down part too soon."
"We want to win so badly. Anything outside the World Cup is not known to us," added backup netminder Roberto Luongo, whose work in a 4-3 overtime win against the Czechs in the semifinal paved the way for Canada's appearance in Tuesday's final.
It's not just idle rhetoric. Many of the players seem genuinely uncertain about what lies ahead, so focused have they been on the task at hand.
Ruutu is eligible to play in the American Hockey League for the 'Hawks' affiliate, but he has also considered returning to Finland and playing in the elite league there.
The challenge facing players on both finalists is the same, staying in shape, staying ready for an agreement that may not come at all this season.
"The only thing a guy can do is just stay ready and be in shape. You never know what's going to happen, if things are going to happen quickly or not," said Canadian defenseman Wade Redden of the Ottawa Senators. "I think that's one of the things at the start of the tournament we didn't want to get distracted by all that, obviously it affects everyone a lot."
The options are more clear-cut for the Finns, some of whom will return to their home clubs in the Finnish elite league, provided they can secure contracts that would allow them to return to the NHL this season if there is a resolution before the mid-December/early January cutoff date to hold a shortened season.
For Canadian players, the options for staying ready with some form of on-ice regimen are more limited and may take more creativity. European leagues under the umbrella of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) have limits on the numbers of imports, which vary from league to league (i.e. Germany allows 12; Switzerland, where Joe Thornton and Niklas Hagman are expected to play for Davos, allows only four.)
IIHF president Rene Fasel said there is a chance individual leagues could expand quota rules in the face of a lockout, but there remains real concern about the influx of unemployed NHLers because it has the potential to establish a "false competition" where teams could abruptly lose a significant number of players if the NHL labor impasse is resolved during the season.
"We can't cheat our fans," Fasel said. "That will not be well-received by the fans."
Luongo said he has reconsidered earlier plans to play in Europe because of insurance issues and because European teams were reluctant to give up a coveted import spot on their roster for a goalie that might not play the full season. He is building a new house and will be married next summer so Luongo is planning to stay closer to his home in Montreal.
Luongo and Theodore are both considering playing in a four-on-four league in Quebec, which is being organized by New York Ranger Joel Bouchard.
"Which is a good thing, it's all for charity," Theodore said. "You've got to stay in shape and be prepared."
There is also the Original Stars of Hockey League, a four-on-four league based out of Ontario, which will feature six teams of players barn-storming cities throughout the province and in other parts of the country that is attracting significant attention from NHLers.
Others, like veteran Joe Sakic and Scott Niedermayer, are looking at time away from competition as an opportunity to focus on family. Brenden Morrow has a 10-week-old daughter he will be spending time with in Dallas. Colorado Avalanche defenseman Adam Foote will return to Denver and help get his children settled in school and then work out with other players in the area.
"It's hard to make plans," he said, noting the uncertainty surrounding the negotiation process.
Likewise, San Jose forward Patrick Marleau, who married this summer, will return to San Jose and collect his thoughts.
"There's quite a few guys there," he said. "We should be able to get some ice."
Finnish star Teemu Selanne, an unrestricted free agent, knows one thing for certain, he will fly home Wednesday.
After that he will have knee surgery to correct a nagging injury that he said has left him at 70 percent for the past three years.
"I'm not going to be playing anywhere for awhile," said Selanne, who would not disclose any details of the injury.
He acknowledged that, depending on the length of the lockout, there is a possibility North American fans have seen the last of him.
"For sure," he said. "Of course it's a possibility."
Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.