It’s easy to be critical of the NHL as it once again muzzles its owners in a ham-fisted bid to ensure the league speaks with one consistent voice during this lockout.
But all you have to do is listen to the meanderings of a star player such as Alex Ovechkin to understand why the NHLPA secretly might wish it had a similar policy.
Ovechkin, having returned to Russia to play during the lockout for Dynamo Moscow in the Kontinental Hockey League, ominously warned this week that he might not return to the Washington Capitals -- his employers, by the way, the team to which he is contractually bound for nine more seasons -- at the end of the lockout.
In comments made to Russian media and then to Washington writers Katie Carrera and Stephen Whyno, the two-time Hart Trophy winner suggested he and shadowy "others" might prefer to stay and play in Europe if they don’t like the outcome of whatever deal is ultimately signed.
The comments likely were meant as a shot across the NHL's bow -- screw us over at your own peril, Gary Bettman, et al. -- but they end up coming off as clownish and uninformed from a player who is one of the most recognizable stars in the game.
It was Ovechkin who told ESPN.com during preseason interviews two years ago that he would go AWOL from the NHL to play in the 2014 Sochi Games in Russia if the league didn’t agree to continue its participation in the Olympics.
The threat is an interesting one; it might actually happen, given how important the Sochi Games are for Russia and for athletes such as Ovechkin, and how little interest many NHL owners have in allowing their players to take part in the Olympic tournament in general.
If we assume that Ovechkin still feels the same way about playing in the Olympics, then his comments about not returning to the NHL after the lockout are patently ridiculous.
The NHL and the KHL have an agreement to honor each other’s contracts. Given that the KHL wants to be viewed as a big-boy hockey league, we can only assume it would enforce that agreement and boot any refugee players who are under NHL contract once a new collective bargaining agreement is settled.
That’s how it should work.
Beyond that, let’s assume the International Ice Hockey Federation has the kind of backbone to deny anyone who is in violation of their signed contracts participation in IIHF-sanctioned events, whether it’s a world championship or an Olympic tournament.
There should be no gray area on this, and the reality is that the chances of Ovechkin or anyone else under contract not returning to their NHL clubs at the end of this process -- whenever that might be and however painful it might be to the players -- is slim to none.
Beyond the sheer nonsense of the threat, Ovechkin’s comments are an inadvertent slap in the face to the NHLPA itself. He might not have intended it but Ovechkin was talking about how he might react to a final deal bargained by executive director Donald Fehr and ratified by the players themselves, how in the end such a deal might not be good enough for him.
The implication is that Ovechkin has at least considered that a new CBA indeed will involve deep cuts to player salaries.
We’re not suggesting Ovechkin isn’t in lockstep with the rest of the NHLPA brotherhood, but it’s one of those almost Freudian slips that makes you wonder if it’s a deep concern many NHLers harbor: how bad the final deal is going to look.
At the very least, the Ovechkin comments were uninformed; at the worst, they are a suggestion that some, including one of the game’s top players, are bracing for the absolute worst when the process is complete.