By Stu Hackel
They're packing up and getting ready to go: Locked out NHL players have begun their inevitable migration to Europe in search of work.
Evgeni Malkin and Sergei Gonchar are headed to Magnitogorsk to play for Metallurg of the KHL. Jaromir Jagr heads home to Kladno in the Czech Republic to play for his hometown team, which he owns with his father, and it seems that Tomas Plekanec will go with him. Joe Thornton, who met his wife while playing for Davos in the Swiss league during the last lockout, will go back there and could be joined by Rick Nash, his linemate in Davos that season. Ilya Kovalchuk, Ruslan Fedotenko, Lubomir Visnovsky, Jiri Tlusty, Mark Streit, Yannick Weber, Jiri Hudler, Jussi Jokinen and goalies Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov are also part of the first wave of signings across the Atlantic. There are indications that Alex Ovechkin, Logan Couture, Niklas Backstrom and Anze Kopitar could be right behind while Pavel Datsyuk, who had reportedly been signed actually remains undecided. (You can follow the post-lockout transactions here.)
These signings occasionally get murky, confirmed then unconfirmed. The player and the team must agree on the money, the player has to be formally transferred by the IIHF (Nail Yakopov is having that problem) and there is also the matter of insurance and we'll get into that below.
What's not murky is that while players wait for negotiators to reach an agreement, staying in shape is a priority. That's why some choose to play in Europe. They can rent ice in North America and scrimmage with each other all they want, or practice with established clubs in their areas on a daily basis, but nothing takes the place of real games. For some, especially those who have families in North America, it's not always an easy decision to pick up and go, so they may delay a Euro decision in hope that the sides reach an agreement sooner rather than later. But the longer this CBA stalemate goes on, the more those who remain here will consider going over.
The consequences of their departures spark some interesting comments. My old friend Howard Berger in Toronto posted an item on his blog that took the position that these European vacations undermine the union's efforts to keep the players united. He believes that their scattering overseas "decries unanimity. Hanging together as a group – physically and philosophically – through the tenuous early days of the lockout would present a more consolidated front and, perhaps, urge owners back to the table. In any form of waiting game, the 2012-13 season will dissolve before the players’ eyes, fracturing – once again – their conviction."
Berger quoted someone he identified as an anonymous senior NHL executive as saying, "Let ‘em go. The players think they are threatening the owners by signing contracts in Europe. In fact, what they’re showing is they don’t have a lot of stomach to remain together in this fight. And that’s what we expected.
"Deep down, the players know that if it comes to a stand-off, they cannot outlast the owners,” said the NHL executive. “Taking off to other leagues in Europe and the Nordic countries might make them feel better for awhile. But, it comes across to others as abandoning their position rather quickly.”
That's a rather extreme and cynical view of things. Compare that exec's sentiment to that of Devils President and GM Lou Lamoriello, who told Mark Everson of The New York Post, “That’s their choice. I don’t question it. It happened before, and it happens with players during the regular season when they’re [unsigned].”
How guys seeking work elsewhere would subvert the players' unity is unexplained. The fact is, that line of thinking is counter-intuitive. The owners are hoping the players fold because they're not going to be getting paychecks -- that's the point of a lockout. But the players who find work in Europe will be getting paid and whatever economic pressures the lockout is intended to apply will be less relevant to those who are employed.
Similarly, how does an NHLer playing in Europe show a lack of conviction? Whatever that exec takes the optics of their sojourn to be, the players aren't being asked to stick around to walk picket lines or to boycott hockey everywhere. Allegedly fleeing to Europe doesn't constitute breaking ranks with the NHLPA leadership or asking Don Fehr to negotiate differently than he has so far. That's the sort of thing that would undermine player solidarity. Playing in Europe isn't remotely akin to that.
In any case, the NHLPA doesn't seem to consider locked out NHLers signing overseas damaging to their efforts in the slightest. The union has provided players with all sorts of information about signing in Europe, assisting them in finding work and with their insurance. From all reports, the PA did a competent job of communicating with its members in Europe and North America during the offseason and there's no reason to believe that effort won't continue now.
And I don't think the NHL is -- or has to be -- worried that these temporary arrangements that the players are making will strengthen other leagues to the point where its supremacy will be threatened -- unless, that is, the next CBA contains a new salary structure so low that the KHL and other leagues become equally attractive alternatives for NHL players.
The real benefit to the European leagues is the influx of some stars and improved talent that improves quality of play and brings more fans to games.
"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 (quoted by Chris Johnson of Canadian Press). "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."
Some leagues don't want to have much to do with locked out NHLers. Sweden's Elitserien, for example, won't sign any unless they are prepared to commit for the entire season. According to Petteri Ala-Kivimäki writing in The Helsingin Sanomat, Finland's SM-Liiga teams are very concerned about the high insurance costs for NHL players and may not be able to afford to sign many of them -- even though a number of NHLers have ownership stakes in various SM-Liiga clubs. Niklas Backstrom for example, owns a piece of HIFK Helsinki, but he's thinking of playing for the KHL's Dinamo Minsk.
This is where we get into that murky area we discussed earlier in which players are announced as being signed by Euro clubs but really are not. The securing of insurance can be so costly for these teams that the deals can't be finalized even if the team and player agree on his pay. Star players with very long-term contracts become costly to insure and insurance costs can vary based on the length and value of his NHL contract, the player's age, and his history of injuries. "To take just one example," Ala-Kivimäki writes, "the Finnish Ice Hockey Association paid out a five-figure sum in insurance premiums for the services of Mikko Koivu at the last IIHF World Championships in Helsinki and Stockholm. The Finns' Russian counterparts reportedly paid USD 400,000 to cover the insurance on Alexander Ovechkin for the same tournament." That's just for a short tournament, not for a deal that could, potentially, go all season.
Chris Johnson notes how difficult it will be to insure Sidney Crosby, considering his concussion history and his NHL deal which pays him nearly $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," Johnson writes.
And sometimes the players have to pay their own insurance. Depending on the situation, that can scuttle a player's European plans, too.
The KHL may not be as restrictive as the Elitserien or as financially strapped as the SM-Liiga, but it is still cost-conscious. Each club can sign up to three NHLers for a salary worth no more than 65 per cent of what they were to earn with their North American club this season. But there are some different rules beyond that for the 20 teams based in Russia and the six other KHL clubs. For the Russian teams, only one of three spots can be used on a non-Russian player and he 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 KHL teams in Belarus, Kazakstan, Latvia, Ukraine, Slovakia and the Czech Republic can sign players who don't meet any of those criteria.
There's some thought that the European league that may see the biggest influx of NHLers is Switzerland's NLA. But wherever this exodus takes NHLers, they're hoping they won't be there long and they can pack up and return to North America as soon as possible.
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