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The Globe and Mail

With NHL labour talks at impasse, players cast glance overseas

Alex Ovechkin and other NHL stars could be heading to Russia to play in the KHL this season if there is an NHL Lockout.


We have all, especially of late thanks to Christopher Nolan's superhero series, heard of The Batman.

But credit Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin for introducing us in these challenging times – in terms of NHL-related entertainment – to The Bettman.

As in NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.

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"I don't think we're close enough to make a deal," Ovechkin told reporters in Washington when asked about the league's labour talks with players on Tuesday. "It's all about the owners and the Bettman."

No, they are not close to a deal. And most signs point to it being ominously far away.

The NHL broke off talks last week with the National Hockey League Players' Association after not getting back what it deemed an appropriate response to its latest offer, creating a stalemate which threatens to last the entire week even as the current collective bargaining agreement is set to expire a mere 10 days from now.

The mood is grim and, as a result, players around the league are already making arrangements to play overseas in the event of the third lockout under The Bettman's tenure.

"Of course I think about it because my hometown has teams," Ovechkin said of heading to Moscow to play in the Continental Hockey League (KHL). "Of course I'm probably gonna be there. But I don't wanna be there; I wanna be here."

Ovechkin would be far from alone.

Several player agents surveyed this week said they expect most of their European clients will play in their home countries should the lockout extend into October.

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Some of their North Americans teammates could then follow suit if it lasts much beyond that, especially with the KHL eager to take advantage of the situation.

For many players, collecting a paycheque – even a much smaller one – while still playing is obviously appealing.

Another source of income is also coming in the form of an escrow payment from last season, which could help keep otherwise antsy players accommodated with 6.5 to 8.5 per cent of their 2011-12 salary landing in their bank account in mid-October.

For the average player, that's another $150,000 to $200,000 or so – or the equivalent of two weeks' pay – to tide them over.

For someone like Ovechkin, it's closer to $700,000.

Consider, too, that this is a more unified and better prepared group of players lining up behind new NHLPA head Donald Fehr, and those three factors alone (Europe, escrow and financial planning) may push the urgency to get a deal done into November and beyond.

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As for where the negotiations stand, the situation is bleak. The league's latest offer came with an immediate 19.3-per-cent pay cut that has zero chance of being accepted, even before other givebacks are factored in.

The NHLPA's offer, meanwhile, allowed for only a modest tapering off of its share of hockey-related revenues.

There's not much common ground there, and the league sees little reason for anything but a hard-line approach after watching its NFL and NBA cousins squeeze far better deals out of their players.

So, with a mere 16 days until training camps are scheduled to open, the only update is there is no update. Not only are the two sides not talking, there's no agreement as to why they're not talking.

Even more troubling, beyond the money, other matters relating to player safety, discipline, future Olympic participation and realignment have in large part gone ignored.

Bettman wants to hammer out the "economic issues" before anything else – even as teams continue to dole out massive extensions to young players such as Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle – and that means we're in for a wait.

"Why they still sign the guys for 10 years and five years?" Ovechkin asked on Tuesday. "It looks strange and look stupid and they right now say like, 'We want to cut salary and we want to cut everything.' And I think lots of guys, they're just not coming back if this happen."

That's a bold threat, but it's hardly one many players can make good on. Their current salaries minus 19.3 per cent are in most cases still considerably more than they'll make elsewhere, and at some point, after all the waiting, that number will creep closer and closer to the magic one that gets a deal done.

It may look strange and stupid – in many ways it is – but there's a method to it all.

The Bettman, after all, has been here before.

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