Injury scares, junior union rattles its sabre, Woe-klahoma City, more
News that Tuukka Rask had pulled himself after the first period of a Czech Extraliga game earlier this week sent blood pressures soaring in Boston as team officials -- unable to speak to the goaltender -- scrambled for details of his condition.
Turned out that Rask had tweaked his groin. Nothing too serious, but for a goalie with a history of problems in that area, even the faintest twinge can't simply be brushed off.
Along with Ruslan Fedotenko, who was removed from a KHL game on Thursday morning for precautionary reasons, Rask was the latest locked-out NHLer playing in Europe to send an injury scare through a front office back home. Among the far-flung wounded:
• Devils defenseman Anton Volchenkov, who broke his foot while blocking a shot for Torpedo of the KHL. He will be on the shelf another four-to-six weeks.
• Flyers winger Jakub Voracek, who has missed three weeks after sustaining a sprained knee while playing for Lev Praha of the KHL.
• Red Wings forward Cory Emmerton, who flew back to the States after breaking a finger during his first game with SaiPa of the SM-Liiga. He could be sidelined for a month or more and hasn't yet decided whether he'll return to Finland.
• Rangers winger Rick Nash, who missed a handful of games after banging up his shoulder while playing for Davos of the Swiss league.
Rask's injury was the least significant, but easily the most troubling. Boston's long-time starter-in-waiting finally ascended to the top of the depth chart when Tim Thomas quit on his teammates last spring. But Rask is coming off a season that was cut short a month by a groin injury. No wonder that alarm bells were clanging.
His expected return to action Friday should quell immediate concerns, but with Anton Khudobin as Boston's next in line, the B's and their fans have to be wondering, "Why the rush?" Considering the drop-off at the position, Rask is the team's most important player and a little more rest couldn't hurt.
The Bruins dodged the nightmare scenario this time, but with scores of players suiting up overseas or in unaffiliated North American minor leagues, each passing day increases the chances that the next injury will have serious implications.
What if that next player isn't ready to go when -- OK,
That's why every active player has secured insurance for his NHL contract, either footing the bill himself or having it picked up by his temporary team. But with no precedent set, there's no way of knowing exactly how an insurer, a team, or the Players' Association would handle the fallout from an injury that carried over to the start of NHL play.
Still, faced with the drudgery of renting rinks for unsupervised skates -- as Sidney Crosby, Ryane Clowe, Steve Ott and others did in suburban Dallas this week -- or playing in the occasional half-speed, no-contact charity match, it's no wonder that players will accept the risk to get in some competitive hockey.
Consider Rask. Through seven appearances against top-end competition, he's posted a 1.94 goals-against average and .932 save percentage for league-leading HC Skoda Plzen. If he can bring that edge back home to Boston, a mild groin pull will have been a small price to pay.
Of course, if the next one's not so mild...
For months now, the hockey world has been amused by the bumbling antics of a mysterious group purporting to represent the players of the Canadian Hockey League.
This morning, the laughter got a little bit quieter.
On Thursday, the so-called CHLPA was rebuffed by the Alberta Labour Relations Board (ALRB) in its attempt to hasten the certification vote for the five Western Hockey League teams based in that province. The ALRB was unmoved by the group's argument that potential union members faced intimidation and required the protection of an immediate ballot. The earliest the vote now can be taken is December 4.
With that door unsurprisingly slammed shut, the group forwarded a six-page letter to the OHL Commissioner Dave Branch and all 20 member teams that was signed by Michael C. Mazzuca, legal counsel to the CHLPA and a former player for the London Knights and Kitchener Rangers.
The first five pages (
"We hereby demand the OHL and Teams to forthwith comply with the legislative working conditions in Ontario," the letter said. Among their conditions to avoid legal action for breaching the Employment Standards Act in the province, the group asked that players be paid a minimum wage ($10.25 per hour, although it is only $7.40 in Michigan and just $7.25 in Pennsylvania, two American states where OHL teams are based), including time-and-a-half for hours worked over 44, plus vacation and holiday pay.
You know, treat them like anyone else out there in the work force.
Two problems with that. First, there's no current legal basis for recognizing junior hockey players as employees either in Ontario or Western Canada and Quebec, where similar letters are expected to be sent today. Maybe the courts at some point will decide that's exactly what they are, but given the accepted wisdom that these teams offer them a high-end training ground for advancement rather than employment, it seems unlikely.
Second: the group doesn't officially represent anyone yet. There have been no certifications, no membership meetings. No player has self-identified as a member. No one from the group has even met with representatives of the leagues.
From the start, the CHLPA's top-down approach to organization hasn't passed the smell test. Its initial proposal to the CHL featured the implementation of a $1.50 ticket surcharge that would fund the union. That would amount to a kitty that's fed upwards of $25 million per year. No word yet on what the group -- which includes executive director Georges Laraque and spokesman Derek Clarke and maybe others, but who really knows? -- would do with all that cash, but it's unlikely they'd share the wealth at a rate of $20,000-plus per player.
Still, as comical as it's been to this point, the unveiled threat of litigation should put the CHL on notice that this group won't simply go away.
So the spotlight now falls on Branch, who also serves as commissioner of the CHL. Whether this group will ever have any real stake in the business, its initial rumblings presented the league with a chance to take unilateral steps to improve what's widely regarded as a flaw in the model.
While a few players grumble about the weekly stipend -- ranging from $35 to $60, based on experience -- many have taken issue with the strict limitations placed on the education packages that are offered as part of their contracts.
Ideally, a player graduates from junior hockey and goes on to a long and lucrative career smashing records, signing trading cards and appearing on video game box covers.
Realistically? The dream dies here. And with just 18 months to take advantage of the education option, the vast majority are left to face a stark choice: Either continue on to play in a lower minor league or overseas with at least a faint hope of moving up the ladder, or head off to school before that avenue is closed off as well. The time limitation precludes doing both.
Anyone can see that's a lousy choice to put on a kid who has devoted his whole life to the game. It's a flaw that can and should be addressed.
Branch blew his first chance to cut the CHLPA off with a proactive approach to that issue, and now he has to face the very real possibility of a game-changing legal battle.
The CHLPA still seems like a joke. Only it's a little less funny now.
Need a good laugh? Check out Phoenix ("maybe Quebec soon") forward Paul Bissonnette being pranked by Calgary's Mike Cammalleri prior to a recent BioSteel workout. Have to appreciate how long the Twitter legend keeps his cool while being vetted by an overly aggressive security guard.
• Nail Yakupov was the marquee name when the Russians announced
That guy could be dynamic winger Alexander Khokhlachev. Boston's second-rounder of 2011 bolted from the OHL's Windsor Spitfires for the high-paying pastures of the KHL when his father, Igor, was named GM of Spartak Moscow during the offseason.
But the transition to the pro game hasn't gone smoothly for Koko, who has just one goal and two points to go with his minus-5 rating in 19 games and was scratched from Wednesday's match. Rumors of a potential retreat to the OHL have been swirling since the Spits dropped Juraj Bezuch to clear an import slot on their roster and claimed the rights to Khokhlachev on re-entry waivers earlier this month.
An official with a conference rival suggested (maybe only half-jokingly) that the claim was simply a face-saving move made by Windsor GM Warren Rychel to cover up for a bungled import draft -- Russian Vladimir Ionin didn't survive training camp, prompting a trade for Bezuch who had been waived over the summer by Lethbridge. Still, the official added, "if he's coming back, this would probably be the time."
The Spits were leading OHL's West Division entering the action of Oct. 25, but their popgun offense is averaging just 2.69 goals per game, worst in the conference. Adding an impact performer like Khokhlachev to their lineup alongside 2013 top prospect Kerby Rychel and Montreal pick Brady Vail would keep Windsor in the mix for the divisional title...or it might provide the Spits with a compelling trade chip as they prep for a bid to host the 2014 Memorial Cup.
• It's been funny to see Oklahoma City mentioned by some pundits during the past few days as a possible post-lockout expansion destination for the NHL. It's certainly not the first time that the community has been eyed. In fact, it was considered a leading contender early in the Aughts when the turnstiles of the Central Hockey League's Blazers were spinning upwards of 10,000 times on some nights, a boffo number that suggested Oklahoma City was ready to support a team at the next level.
These days, OKC makes Phoenix seem like the promised land.
If it ever had a moment, that time has passed. The NBA was first to plant its flag in OKC soil, and the Thunder immediately became the local sports gorilla. But with the town's sporting dollars diverted to hoops, its love affair with minor league hockey was revealed to be a mirage fed primarily by thousands of freebie tickets.
Since arriving in 2010, the AHL Barons have been met with indifference, leaving Edmonton's top prospects playing in front of some of the smallest crowds in the minors.
Last season, the Barons ranked 26th in the 30-team league, averaging about 3,600 per game. Amazingly, the building emptied out for the playoffs. There were nights when the top team in the Western Conference couldn't draw 2,000 to the Cox Convention Center.
Still, you couldn't blame team management for thinking they might finally gain some traction in the market when the Oilers announced they'd be sending some of the game's best young players to OKC for the duration of the lockout. Maybe it's too early -- football's still being played, after all -- but it's not happening. Despite icing a lineup that features Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle and AHL Player of the Week Justin Schultz, the Barons continue to play for friends-and-family crowds.
"It was just sad," said one league official who was in attendance for the team's third home game, on October 23. "Might have been 1,200 people in the building."
What makes that lowly estimate even more miserable is that the Barons have reportedly sold around 1,900 season tickets. Do the math. The diehards are showing up, but the local businesses who bought tickets can't seem to give them away.
Neverthless, there is some world-class talent on display. This could be a team that people will be talking about a decade down the road as one for the ages. But if the chance to watch this group -- soon to be augmented by Taylor Hall, who continues to practice but has yet to make his season debut after offseason surgery -- at a reasonable price can't capture the attention of OKC sports fans, you have to wonder whether this city has any appetite for the game.
Maybe now that it has had a taste of top-level sports, OKC is simply turning up its nose at anything of lesser quality. Wouldn't be the first time that has happened. Or maybe all this town wants, or needs, is a Single-A team with less finesse and more knuckle-draggers. And one that gives away plenty of tickets.
• Nathan McKinnon is leading the QMJHL with 17 goals. Zach Furcale, the premier goaltending prospect for this year's draft, is tops in the league with 11 wins. But on Oct. 24 in Halifax, all eyes were on Jonathan Drouin, who returned to the lineup after losing six games to a shoulder injury. The flashy winger didn't disappoint, earning first star honors in a 6-2 win over Drummondville.
Regarded as a mid-first-rounder at the start of the season, Drouin is building a strong case as a top-10 pick -- maybe higher -- in what's stacking up to be a deep draft. He counted a shorthand tally among his four points in his return, running his totals to seven goals and 19 points in just eight games.
"He was fantastic," said an Eastern Conference scout who attended the game. "Wasn't tentative at all. He's so smart out there, always in the right place."
With the skillful playmaker back for the Mooseheads, the country's second-ranked team is the class of the Q. The win over the Voltigeurs made it 11 straight for Halifax, four shy of the franchise record. If they keep rolling, they'll have the chance to set a new mark on Friday, Nov. 9 when they visit Gatineau. That game will be carried in Canada on Sportsnet and is expected to be shown on the NHL Network in the U.S. But whether the streak's alive or not, it's a must-watch game for draft prospectors with the Big Three back in action.