The decision by a number of notable locked-out NHL stars to ply their craft in the European leagues has angered some hockey fans, but does it warrant criticism?
It didn’t take long following the imposition of the current NHL lockout for a number of locked-out stars to sign with various teams in a number of European leagues.
Among the notables were Evgeni Malkin (the current NHL MVP), Alexander Ovechkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Ilya Kovalchuk, Jason Spezza, Joe Thornton, Rick Nash, Anze Kopitar,Tyler Seguin, Logan Couture, Sergei Gonchar, Jaromir Jagr, and Tomas Plekanec.
These moves angered some NHL fans, who criticized those players for “taking away jobs” from veterans of those European leagues. Some fans have labelled those NHL’ers “scabs”.
In labor terms, a “scab” is someone who continues to work during a strike, or is brought in as a replacement for a striking worker.
In this case, those locked-out NHL players signing contracts with European teams aren’t “scabs”. They’re not crossing any picket lines, nor are they taking away jobs from a striking worker.
Perhaps a better label for those players would be “opportunistic jerks”.
Still, it’s not as though those locked-out NHL’ers are barging into the offices of the team owners in the KHL, Czech Extraliga, Finland’s SM-liiga, Slovak Extraliga, Sweden’s HockeyAllsvenskan or Switzerland’s National Leagues demanding to be hired.
If the owners of the teams in those leagues were to follow the example of the Swedish Elitserien – insisting locked-out NHL players must sign with them for the entire season, with no “escape clause” enabling them to return to the NHL when the lockout ends – those players wouldn’t have jobs to go to.
As it turns out, however, even the Swedish Elitserien couldn’t prevent NHL’ers from signing in their league, as the Swedish Competition Authority ruled against their decision, meaning the league must allow their teams to sign locked-out NHL players if they wish, or face stiff fines.
The fact is, those who run those European leagues, as well as teams in the Swedish Elite League, see this as a great opportunity to temporarily hire elite NHL talent not normally available to them, bolstering attendance and TV ratings.
For the KHL, it serves a broader purpose, helping to sell their league as a viable alternative to the NHL when the lockout eventually ends.
Put simply, if the NHL owners hadn’t locked out their players, the latter wouldn’t have gone to the European leagues, where they knew they would be welcomed with open arms. It’s supply and demand, the global hockey free market at work.
Another complaint from fans about NHL’ers playing overseas is they’re doing so for less than half of their NHL salaries.
Those players have complained about the NHL’s demand for pay cuts (in the form of reduced share of HRR and increased escrow payments). as unfair. Signing with European teams for considerable less money (as well as having to fund your own insurance) does little to buttress their complaints about the owners’ demands.
It also puts a dent into the fan sympathy the NHLPA was enjoying up to the time of the lockout.
That being said, the locked-out NHL’ers for the most part aren’t heading overseas for financial purposes, but to remain in game-shape for when the lockout ends, provided it ends in time to salvage the 2012-13 season.
Of course, that’s cold comfort for those players who will lose jobs, even temporarily, to these NHL interlopers. For them, this isn’t a laughing matter, nor am I making light of their situation.
For most of those players who’ll lose jobs to the locked-out NHL players, it’s a temporary situation. Once the lockout ends, almost all of those NHL players will return to North America, allowing those European players who lost their jobs to be re-hired.
Interestingly, no one (except Don Cherry and a few xenophobes) complains when Canadian junior leagues bring over teenage European players, taking away roster spots from “good Canadian boys”, despite the fact some of those Canadian boys lack the hockey talent to be in those leagues in the first place.
No one grumbles when a hotshot young rookie earns a roster spot at the expense of a fading veteran player. No one bats an eye when some of those fading veterans, or even some long-time minor leaguers, decide to extend their playing careers by signing with European teams, taking away roster spots from long-time European players.
Indeed, no one complained when NHL teams demoted players under entry-level contracts to their farm clubs for the duration of the lockout, which could threaten the roster spots of some established AHL players.
The sight of locked out NHL players signing for less money in European leagues and taking roster spots from lesser lights dependent upon those leagues for their livelihood appears opportunistic, even unseemly, but it’s also part of professional team sports. Regardless of what league you play in, there’s always someone who’ll come along at some point to take away your job.
Welcome to the cut-throat business of hockey.