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Kings, Minus a Few, Open Training Camp

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At this resort community near Lake Arrowhead, tucked high in the San Bernardino Mountains, the Kings will open training camp today.

Well, sort of.

Their coach isn’t here. Neither is their star player, their top goal scorers nor their prime off-season acquisition. Coach Tom Webster, Wayne Gretzky, Tomas Sandstrom, Luc Robitaille, Jari Kurri and Tony Granato are involved in the international Canada Cup tournament, which could tie them up through the middle of September.

But 71 players, under the direction of assistant coaches Cap Raeder and Rick Wilson, will be on hand at the practice rink to begin preparations for the club’s silver anniversary season.

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The Kings will spend a week here at their new training camp, a long way from Hull, Canada, the Quebec site of their camp the previous two seasons. They will break camp next weekend to begin their eight-game exhibition season at Madison, Wis., on Sept. 15 against the Quebec Nordiques.

This isn’t the best of years for the Kings to open training camp without their coach and their best players. There are plenty of questions to be answered before the regular season opens next month. Such as:

--How quickly will the new first line of Gretzky, Sandstrom and Kurri mesh?

--Can Bob Kudelski fill the role of second-line center, a spot opened by the trading of Todd Elik?

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--Can new arrivals Jeff Chychrun and Charlie Huddy fill the hole left by the trading of Steve Duchesne?

--Can John McIntyre replace the traded Steve Kasper as center of the checking line?

General Manager Rogie Vachon insists, however, that he’s not concerned about the absentees.

“Not really,” he said, “because it’s so early. If it happened at the end of camp, we’d be in big trouble. But everything at camp has already been prepared by Tommy and his coaches.”

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Vachon figures to be the busiest man in camp. By Tuesday, he would like to wrap up contract negotiations with all 12 of his unsigned players. Those in their option year, who haven’t signed by then, are required either to file for arbitration or to play out their option.

The deliberating dozen are forwards Robitaille, Sandstrom, Kudelski, Granato, Dave Taylor, Mike Donnelly and Randy Gilhen; defensemen Chychrun, Brian Benning, Rod Buskas and Rene Chapdelaine, and goalie Kelly Hrudey.

Robitaille is believed to be close to signing a multiyear deal. Sandstrom and Donnelly are both free agents but both are expected to sign.

Vachon cut down his list Thursday by signing McIntyre and goalie Daniel Berthiaume.

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Vachon expected to have most of the players in the fold long before now. But the ongoing negotiations between the owners and the players over a new collective bargaining agreement have brought contract signings to a near-halt.

“It’s the same all over the league,” Vachon said. “It’s been frustrating.”

The feeling among both players and agents has been, why sign under the current rules when those rules might drastically change?

But Tuesday’s deadline is now pinching the players. The collective bargaining agreement doesn’t expire until Sept. 15. And judging by the current pace of negotiations, the sides appear to be going down to the wire on a new deal, if, indeed, they even sign one by then. But to avoid arbitration, players must sign by Tuesday.

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