It's no vacation for Euro players
Less than a week after the lockout began, players around the league are packing their bags. While some are gathering in the U.S. and Canada for informal skates with fellow teammates and training partners, a significant number are headed across the Atlantic to play overseas during the work stoppage.
Since the collective bargaining agreement expired Saturday night and the league imposed the sport's second stoppage in eight years, droves of players have flocked to Europe to snatch up jobs in Russia, Switzerland and other desirable European locales. Ilya Kovalchuk, Evgeni Malkin and Alex Ovechkin have joined teams with Russia's Kontinental Hockey League, while Joe Thornton, Rick Nash, Jason Spezza and Mark Streit have opted to play in the Swiss leagues. Anze Kopitar, Christian Ehrhoff and Jaromir Jagr have found work with clubs in Sweden, Germany and Czech Republic, respectively.
The star-studded influx of talent might also continue to intensify the longer the work stoppage lasts. Even superstar Sidney Crosby said he'd entertain the possibility of playing overseas if the lockout persists.
So what is stopping every locked-out player from bolting while waiting for the impasse to end?
Although most players don't go abroad strictly for the paycheck -- the common motivation is the desire to stay in game shape for the NHL season -- the most prohibitive factor comes down to money, i.e. insurance.
Most contracts being signed in this lockout scenario do not prevent the player from returning to the NHL -- the pacts are annulled once the lockout ends -- but they do not insure the individual's NHL contract in the case of injury. Players must obtain insurance to protect themselves in the event of sustaining an injury during international play and, depending on a number of factors, it doesn't always come cheap.
Factors are age, contract value and injury history, meaning insurance premiums can cost anywhere between $20,000 to $70,000 for a two-month policy, said Colin Fairlie, vice president of the sports division of Toronto-based Sutton Special Risk. Fairlie has been inundated with requests for quotes since August -- "all day, every day," he said -- and estimates he has dealt with hundreds of NHL players about providing them with insurance.
The significant uptick in interest wasn't a surprise, however, given the similar requests during the last lockout eight years ago.
Richard Salgado of Coastal Advisors LLC in New York has already procured policies for four NHL players this time around and is anticipating more to come as games continue to be cancelled.
Salgado said each client's policy premiums will vary, even more so once injury history is factored in. If a player has had multiple operations on his knee or shoulder or has sustained numerous concussions, exclusions in the policy might be necessary.
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"You get a Sidney Crosby, for instance, he's got concussion issues," Salgado said. "With that exclusion in there, it's pretty tough."
Even if insurance is obtained, players might face another set of logistical barriers as well.
Many leagues, such as the Swedish Elite League and the Swiss A-leagues, have import rules, limiting the number of players a club can bring in who are not natives to the country in which they're playing. The KHL allows only three locked-out players per club, only one of which can be a foreign player. The Swiss A-league allows only four import players, while the Swedish Elite League is not open to locked-out players who don't sign a contract for an entire season.
The resulting impact of these restrictions?
Beyond the fact that European players are being pushed out of jobs by their NHL cohorts, hundreds of players are clamoring for a small number of jobs.
One agent, whose client has received significant interest from teams in Sweden, said he is waiting for the first flurry of activity to settle to see which teams have spots still open and what clubs have room for his client to play.
Players must also be granted transfer cards to play internationally, although, according to a high-ranking KHL official, about half have already been processed and the rest are expected to be handled within the week.
The Russian and Swiss leagues remain the top two destinations because the money is good and the level of play is high.
"It's very clear that this is the strongest league, financially, structurally and organizationally," said Ilya Kochevrin, vice president of communications for the KHL. "It's very competitive, with some of the best players in the world. Obviously, it's the top pick."
Meanwhile, the Swiss league might provide the best lifestyle to foreign players. Beyond playing in picturesque cities with impressive amenities, the travel is limited and the level of play is very competitive.
"If you want to go over to Europe and play, that's where you want to go," said former Edmonton Oilers defenseman Jason Strudwick, who played in Lugano of the Swiss A-league in 2006-07. "The lifestyle is just incredible."
Strudwick, who now hosts a radio show on Team 1260 in Edmonton, has also played in Hungary and Sweden's first division but said he found the level of play best in the Swiss A-league.
"It's fast. Guys skate really well and there are some pretty top-notch imports," he said. "To have those kind of guys, it really helps raise the level of play."
Most of the players who have taken the plunge already have been established veterans who know what to expect playing overseas, but it might not be long until younger players start shipping out as well.
The demands of the European game are surely different -- rinks are typically bigger than those in North America, at 200 feet by 100 feet, compared to 200 by 85 -- but it's an opportunity to develop, nonetheless.
"There's a lot more focus on skilled hockey in those countries, so it allows them to use their skills because the ice is bigger," said one Eastern Conference scout who has worked in Europe. "They keep playing the game, keep learning the game, and maybe they come back with a few more tricks in their pocket because they've done it."
With labor talks stalled between the NHL and NHLPA, it's impossible to predict when a deal will be brokered or whether another season might be lost, as it was in 2004-05.
The droves of talent headed to foreign leagues might be fleeting, but for right now they'll embrace the NHL players as much as the rules and finances will allow.
"From the image factor for our league, it's just great when great players come over here," said Ueli Schwarz, the director of elite sports with the Swiss Ice Hockey Federation. "Fans are going nuts."
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