OTTAWA - Even as the hockey world took time to catch its collective breath over the NHL's all-star weekend, it was impossible to ignore the clouds on the horizon.
A collection of the game's top players smiled and laughed their way through four days in the nation's capital—a welcome break during a relentless season—but the revelation about Sidney Crosby's neck injury and focus on Alex Ovechkin's absence, among other things, took some of the spotlight.
In many ways, it's been that kind of season for the league. And there's not much reason to expect it to change.
The majority of the all-stars met with NHL Players' Association executive director Donald Fehr over the weekend to discuss the impending negotiation of a new collective bargaining agreement, something that will continue to dominate headlines coming out of the break.
"People will talk about it, especially us in Phoenix," Coyotes defenceman Keith Yandle said after Sunday's all-star game at Scotiabank Place. "We deal with a lot of talk about the team moving and you've got to do a good job of keeping it out of your room."
That won't keep it out of the newspaper or the general discussion around the sport, however.
More than anything, the NHL is headed into a period of uncertainty that stretches beyond the CBA negotiations: The Coyotes are coming up to end of their third season under league ownership and the threat of a move seems more pronounced than ever; realignment plans seem to have been shelved indefinitely; and the game's most marketable player, Crosby, is spending his time consulting doctors more than a year after having his career interrupted by a hit in the 2011 Winter Classic.
The Penguins weren't planning on discussing Crosby's previously undiagnosed neck injury during the league's showcase event, but a sourced report forced them to confirm it during Saturday's skills challenge. He'll see more doctors this week in attempt to confirm the findings of spine specialist Dr. Robert S. Bray.
"The more information the better," said Crosby's agent Pat Brisson. "Like I said, early this week we'll probably find out more. Hopefully, it'll help us move in an even better direction to recovery."
Fehr is scheduled to meet with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman in the coming days, but they're expected to spend more time discussing the troubled New Jersey Devils—who have been advanced money to help cover operational costs—than anything pertaining to the CBA.
In fact, the NHLPA boss hinted that serious discussions might not start until after the season.
"Let me caution you," said Fehr. "There is this view, I think, that somehow if you have a big formal meeting and everyone comes in and takes pictures of a group of a dozen or two dozen or six dozen people sitting around a table, like the auto workers used to do, that somehow magically signifies the kick-off of something in a formal way, and that the world is different as between before and after. That's largely untrue.
"We'll get to that at the appropriate time, but that doesn't mean there won't be a lot of work, a lot of conversation, a lot of discussion before and on an ongoing basis after that."
It wasn't all doom and gloom in Ottawa.
There was a buzz about a city which got to celebrate its longtime captain Daniel Alfredsson, who earned applause everywhere he went and was the unquestioned star of the show. Chants of "Alfie! Alfie!" rained down when the Senators star scored two goals in the span of 91 seconds during the second period of Sunday's game.
However, the weekend also included plenty of diversions from the all-star script with Boston Bruins goalie Tim Thomas facing questions about his decision to skip his team's White House visit and players taking queries about Ovechkin and Crosby. It didn't dampen the experience for the participants.
"What were the bad stories? Those stories weren't about the all-star game," said Canucks forward Henrik Sedin. "They guys who are here are big stars, and it's great to be around them to see how they interact with the fans and the skills they have."
The break also gives the sport a chance to slow down before it hits warp speed with the playoff races and two-month road to the Stanley Cup final.
"You need the break," said Maple Leafs forward Joffrey Lupul. "Whether you're here or you're just doing something else different, this is a part of the season that a lot of guys really lookforward to—just to recharge the battery. When you get back from this break, you're re-energized and you can kind of see the finish line."
This season, you can see the storm clouds along with it.