With the doors locked shut at NHL arenas, the best hockey players on the planet are turning their focus to a new world of opportunities.
Every player on a NHL roster as of Sunday morning became free to seek other work for the duration of the lockout, and many started doing so immediately. The Russian-based KHL is expected to lure some of the NHL’s biggest names and teams from Switzerland, Finland, Sweden, Germany and the Czech Republic will come calling as well.
Pittsburgh Penguins centre Evgeni Malkin and Ottawa Senators defenceman Sergei Gonchar didn’t waste any time, signing with KHL side Metallurg on Sunday.
The NHL formally locked out its players Sunday after the collective bargaining agreement between the sides expired.
Malkin, a 26-year-old centre with the Pittsburgh Penguins, is the NHL’s reigning MVP. Gonchar, 38, is a defenceman with the Ottawa Senators.
Depending on the length of the lockout, it could result in a massive displacement of players throughout the hockey world.
“The scary part is I think you’ll see some of the best players in the game (going over),” said Calgary Flames forward Mike Cammalleri. “Let’s hope they come back when they’re going to get paid the dollars they’re going to get paid in some of these leagues to go play now.”
Nearly 400 NHL players suited up in 19 different European leagues during the lockout that cancelled the entire 2004-05 season. It was a migration that came with a fair bit of controversy as the NHLers pushed others out of jobs.
The debate around that topic has already restarted again, but it’s unlikely to deter many of the 750 locked-out members of the NHL Players’ Association.
“I’m a hockey player and it’s a competitive business,” said Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby. “Would I look forward to that opportunity of taking someone’s job? No. But at the end of the day I’m a hockey player.”
If the NHL’s most recognizable player ends up signing in Europe at some point, he’s most likely to head to Russia or Switzerland. Malkin, Crosby’s Penguins teammate, is already believed to have started lobbying No. 87 to join him.
The KHL has established guidelines for its teams to follow during the lockout. Each is permitted to sign a maximum of three NHLers for a salary worth no more than 65 per cent of what they were due to earn in North America this season.
For the 20 teams based in Russia, only one of three spots can be used on a foreigner, and that person must have played at least 150 NHL games over the past three seasons, suited up recently for his national team or won the Stanley Cup or a major individual award. The six located outside the Russian border can sign players who don’t meet any of those criteria.
Now in its fifth season, the KHL believes it is in a position to capitalize on the availability of so many elite players.
“Mainly I think it’s going to be a lot of additional marketing potential for the league and hockey itself as a game,” KHL vice-president Ilya Kochevrin said recently. “The stars bring additional attention ... to a lot of people who probably don’t consider hockey the sport of choice.
“I think as a marketing tool it’s a great opportunity.”
There has been some debate in Swedish hockey circles about how best to approach the lockout. The top division, known as Elitserien, has said all players must sign a contract for the entire season — not one that would terminate if the NHL reaches a deal in collective bargaining.
However, the second-tier Allsvenskan is willing to take on NHLers and currently includes past Swedish champions Djurgarden, Leksand and Malmo. Some believe the Elitserien will reconsider its policy when lower-division teams seeking promotion start bringing in reinforcements.
Swedish teams are restricted to having just two players born outside of Europe on their rosters.
Contract offers will also arrive from less traditional hockey countries as well. Teams in Italy, Austria, Great Britain and Norway were among those to sign NHLers during the last lockout.
The biggest issue for players is making sure that they’re properly insured in case of injury — a relatively straightforward process for those who are healthy and on short-term details, but much more complicated for a player like Crosby, who has a concussion history and is owed nearly US$112 million over the next 13 seasons.
European teams will pick up the tab for a player’s insurance premium, which one agent estimated will range between $2,500 and $20,000 per month.
The topic of playing in Europe was covered during a union meeting of more than 275 NHL players in New York last week. The NHLPA advised on situations players will want to avoid and stressed the importance of following all the proper steps.
“We asked a lot of questions,” said New York Islanders forward John Tavares, one of those ready to closely examine his options.
In recent weeks, the prospect of playing abroad became a popular topic of discussion among players.
“A lot of guys went over last time and played and enjoyed it,” said Ottawa Senators forward Jason Spezza. “And I think that message has kind of trickled down.”
It remains to be seen how warmly the KHL will be received by NHL stars. Cammalleri called it a “no-brainer” for Europeans, in particular, to sign contracts in Russia and believes some players will consider staying in that league even after the NHL is back in business.
“You can go over there and make millions and millions and millions of dollars to play hockey,” said Cammalleri.