The slow trickle of locked-out NHL players to Europe turned into a mini-stampede Wednesday, when dozens more joined the exodus. Everyone from the Ottawa Senators' Jason Spezza to the Washington Capitals' Alexander Ovechkin all signed on to play overseas rather than sit at home, twiddling their thumbs, waiting for negotiations to resume.
But for now, anyway, Sidney Crosby won't be joining them, according to his agent, Pat Brisson, who previously placed clients Evgeni Malkin and Sergei Gonchar in Russia's Continental Hockey League (KHL) and Anze Kopitar with a second-division team in Sweden.
In a telephone interview, Brisson noted that: "Sid's in great shape, he feels terrific, he's ready to come out of the gate. He's not going over any time soon, but if it drags on, he's a player. At some point, at the appropriate time, if it comes to that, he says, 'I've got to play.' "
Crosby's hesitancy is understandable considering his injury history and the massive premiums required to insure his contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins, but it hasn't stopped other NHL players, especially the Europeans, from bolting overseas.
Ovechkin, Crosby's primary rival during their first few years in the NHL, made a little Internet noise after agreeing to a contract with Moscow Dynamo, the KHL's defending champions. Ovechkin told reporters in Washington that if a salary rollback was a feature of any new collective bargaining agreement, he might never return.
Ovechkin's threat could be seen as the usual lockout rhetoric, because breaching his 13-year, $124-million (all currency U.S.) contract with the Washington Capitals could face some significant legal hurdles, at a time when the NHL and the KHL have reached a tentative peace on player transfers.
But what is becoming increasingly clear is that many players aren't even waiting until NHL regular-season games are officially cancelled before opting for Plan B (this after the league blessedly cancelled exhibition games through Sept. 30).
Spezza signed with Rapperswil-Jona in the Swiss league, the same team that Doug Gilmour played for in the 1994-95 lockout. The Swiss league has also landed Joe Thornton and Rick Nash, who've signed with Davos, where they played during the last lockout. Thornton's San Jose Sharks teammate Logan Couture has joined Geneva-Servette.
Thornton met his wife playing in Switzerland and generally spends some time each summer skating in Davos, even in years when there isn't a lockout.
"Even if they're going over to play for free, or just to get their disability insurance covered, the players that I've talked to who played in Europe during the last lockout really had fabulous experiences," said player agent Allan Walsh of Octagon Hockey. "The purpose of the lockout is to impose economic sanctions on the players. The league wants the players sitting at home, doing nothing, not earning money and then losing their resolve. By seeing players going over to Europe, signing contracts – it doesn't matter how much money they're making. Some of the big-name Russian players might be able to generate fairly substantial contracts.
"To me, it's largely irrelevant what they're making. The fact is, they're playing at a high level. They're staying in shape. They're having a life experience and they're not just sitting around."
As Walsh noted, Russia's KHL can afford to pay top dollar to the likes Malkin, Ovechkin and Pavel Datsyuk (who joined CSKA Moscow Wednesday), but many others are playing practically for free. Insurance can be expensive and according to Brisson, the premiums can vary greatly from player to player, depending upon the size of their respective contracts; and their state of health.
Crosby is currently playing out the final year of a contract that pays him $8.7-million, at which point his 12-year, $104.4-million extension kicks in. Sources indicate that some players earning in that dizzying range cannot get the full value of their contracts insured, no matter how high the premium.
"Players, they're not looking at making money," Brisson said. "They're trying to keep their skills sharp. Today, these guys train so hard in the summer that they don't want to lose their edge. Two-on-two and three-on-three [line rushes] are not the same as playing the game."
Kopitar has gone to Sweden to play with his brother, Gasper, in Mora, while Patrick Berglund is with Vasteras, both second-division teams. Ilya Bryzgalov (Philadelphia Flyers) will join Datsyuk on CSKA Moscow. Czechs Jiri Hudler (Calgary Flames) and Jakob Voracek (Flyers) will play for Lev Prague, a KHL expansion team based in the Czech Republic. Meanwhile, Colorado Avalanche goaltender Semyon Varlamov will join Lokomotiv Yaroslavl to compete for playing time with former Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender Curtis Sanford, while the Los Angeles Kings' Andrei Loktionov joins Severstal.
Thus far, the Swedish Eliteserien – which welcomed players such as Zdeno Chara, Olli Jokinen, Sheldon Souray and Brendan Morrison during the last lockout – hasn't opened its doors to locked-out NHLers, but Brisson believes that will change in the next month or so, if the lockout persists.
In opting to play in Switzerland, Spezza told a Toronto radio station that Rapperswil left a card open for him, so he wouldn't be taking someone else's job, but that his primary reason for going overseas was so he'd be ready to go if the lockout is settled.
"That's why I'm doing this," Spezza said. "When the season starts, I want to be sharp and hit the ground running."
That, of course, presupposes that the season eventually will start, which is no sure thing at this point.