NHL Lockout possible; other leagues of interest to fans.

Will the NHL lockout the players until they can complete a deal with the NHL Players’ Association for a new Collective Bargaining Agreement?

The short answer: yes, I believe they will.

The long answer: yes, I believe they will, but probably not for the entire season.

No hockey?!?!

This season could well be a tough one, people.  Now, I didn’t start following hockey until midway through the 2005-06 season – just after the last lockout – so I can’t comment on how it felt to be a fan during that cancelled season, but I can imagine: absolute hell, at least for the die-hards among us.  I don’t know about the rest of you, but I live for hockey.  It’s one of the first things I look up when I get up in the mornings, and one of the last things I check in on before I go to bed at night – I don’t want to miss a trade, or an important announcement.  I own three Oilers’ jerseys.  I stay up till 5am some nights during the season to watch games.  Drives my girlfriend up the wall, although she’s a sports fan and does enjoy hockey too so is thankfully understanding of my unhealthy obsession.  I don’t want to even contemplate what a full year (although if a full lockout were to happen it would be more like 16 months) without hockey would do to me.  I might have to even start streaming AHL games to satisfy me!

Roughly a month ago, the NHL submitted it’s opening salvo to the NHLPA in the opening round of negotiations.  The demands and suggestions for change to the CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement) were, of course, ridiculous: players share of hockey revenues down from 57% to 46%; years until a player reaches UFA status up from 7 to 10 years; 5 year entry level contracts instead of 3 years; and so on.  It should be remembered, however, that this was just the opening offer, and was always going to be somewhat “out there”.  The NHLPA’s return shot is likely to be just as biased towards their own interests as the NHL’s was to theirs.  So that’s actually a good thing.

A good thing?!

Of course.  After the NHL receives the NHLPA’s counter-offer, they can really start negotiating.  Aspects such as 5 year entry-level deals and the increase in years-until-UFA will most likely be scrapped (and so they should), in return for a cap on contract length – to counter the Ilya Kovalchuk/Marian Hossa type long term deals that are destroying the whole essence of a salary-capped league – and bringing player revenue shares closer to 50%.

So do not fret, my friends.  This will get done.  The only matter is when.  I sincerely doubt it will be done by the time the September 15th deadline comes about, and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has already stated that he will lockout the players if an agreement is not in place by then.  This despite the NHLPA saying they would be willing to start the season without an agreement in place.  My guess, along with many other people, is that the first month of the season will be locked out, and NHL hockey will begin sometime in November.  So, roughly 10 games.

10 games?  That’s not so bad…

On paper, no.  However there are factors to consider.  Some players will spend that time playing in other leagues around the world.  Some might not come back until the following season, if at all.  Particularly with the amount of money the Russian KHL is willing to pony up – and no I’m not just referring to Russian players who are unfairly characterised as greedy.

Of course, the NHL isn’t the only league in the World, and if a lockout does happen – be it for 10 games or 82 games – there is plenty of opportunity to follow hockey elsewhere.  The caveat is that you might not be able to watch many of these on TV, but we’ll see what happens.

AHL (American Hockey League) – A very high standard of hockey, pretty much second only to the NHL.  This league has an unfair reputation amongst both players and fans as a bad league, and young players in the NHL often dread being “demoted” to the 30-team AHL.  However, it is an excellent training ground for any pro-hockey player – the standard is so high with most players battling to earn promotion to the big league, and any young player should relish the opportunity for increased ice time and the opportunity to become a better player, despite the pay cut they would have to take.  Magnus Paajarvi of the Oilers for example had an excellent attitude when sent down this year after spending a whole year in the NHL, saying it would only serve to improve his skills.  Young NHL stars such as Jason Spezza, Corey Schneider and Tyler Ennis all had their starts in the A.  The current champions are the Norfolk Admirals, who defeated the Toronto Marlies in the Calder Cup Finals.

SEL (Swedish Elitserien) – This is an excellent league, regarded as at least on a par with the North American AHL, if not perhaps slightly better.  According to Wikipedia, it is the fourth highest paying league in the world, and is comprised of 12 teams.  Unlike the NHL and AHL, the SEL (and most other European Leagues) conduct a promotion/relegation format, meaning if your team finishes in the bottom two, then they have to play in a relegation tournament with the top 4 teams of the Allsvenskan (the 2nd tier league) to fight for their place in the SEL.  This means that the teams are constantly playing for something, which in many ways is far more entertaining than the NHL’s system of rewarding the worst teams with high draft picks (yes, I do realise the irony that I am an Oilers fan and stating that!).  The SEL has produced many Ice Hockey greats over the years, from Mats Sundin and Nick Lidstrom to the Sedin twins and Henrik Lundqvist.  It was also instrumental during the last lockout in that many NHLers signed contracts with SEL teams and played the season with them – this proved vastly beneficial to many players, and many said was instrumental in improving their offensive capabilities.  The current champions are Brynäs IF, who defeated Skellefteå in the playoff finals.

Extraliga (Czech Republic) – The Czech Extraliga is a 14-team league in the Czech Republic.  Formerly a powerhouse in European hockey, it has fallen from grace somewhat in terms of the overall level of competition and the number of quality players it produces.  However it is still a very good league, and definitely worth watching if you can.  Again, many NHLers migrated here during the last lockout, and may do so again if this year is canned by the NHL.  The Extraliga has produced one of the best players ever seen in Jaromir Jagr, not to mention countless other great players such as Petr Nedved, Dom Hasek, Ales Hemsky, Ladislav Smid, Petr Sykora, Patrik Elias, Milan Hejduk, etc.  Unfortunately, due to the declining quality of the league, many of the country’s top young players are moving overseas to play in the North American junior leagues, but there are still many quality players here.  Nathan Walker is a particularly interesting player to follow, despite not being of Czech heritage.  He is an 18 year old Australian player, who has hopes of being the first Australian ever drafted by an NHL team.  He was passed over (inexplicably, to be honest – he was quite highly rated) this year, but still has another couple of years to get drafted and even after then, he could still be signed as a free agent.  Definitely one to watch.  The current Extraliga champions are Pardubice, who defeated Brno in the Finals.

SM-Liiga (Finland) – This is the top league in Finland, and comprises 14 teams battling in what is rated as the 2nd best league in Europe.  Reports have this league as possibly the most entertaining European league, given the talented and “gritty” nature of Finns – they tend to adjust to the “North American” style of hockey much better and quicker than players from other Nationalities.  This league has produced some stunning talent over the years, and in particular has become known as a goalie factory.  Star goalies now in the NHL include Mikka Kiprusoff, Niklas Backstrom, Kari Lehtonen, Pekka Rinne, Tuukka Rask and Antti Niemi – all starting goalies on their teams.  Other brilliant players over the years include: the Koivu brothers Saku and Mikko, Olli Jokinen, Kimmo Timmonen, Tuomo Ruutu, Joni Pitkanen, Valtteri Filppula, and not to mention three of the all time best Finns in the NHL – Esa Tikkanen, Jari Kurri and Teemu Selanne.  Players to watch from here are Wild draft pick Mikael Granlund and Sabres draft pick Joel Armia.  The current champions are JYP Jyvaskyla, who defeated the Lahden Pelicans in the playoff finals.

Kontinental Hockey League (KHL, Russia) – The most controversial league on this list by far, the KHL was established in 2008 following the demise of the Russian Super League.  The league consists of 20 teams in Russia and a further 6 teams in Belarus, Latvia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Kazakhstan and the Ukraine. It is commonly thought to be the 2nd best league in the world, although this is arguable as many former NHL role players move to the KHL and become superstar scorers, such as Patrick Thoresen of Norway.  The owners of KHL teams are known to extremely rich and willing to offer to pay players from all over the world extraordinary amounts of money to play for their team, and yet it is often reported that players often don’t actually get paid what they were promised.  Other controversies include “poaching” of NHL star players such as Alexander Radulov in the middle of their NHL contracts (although an agreement has been made between the leagues not to do this anymore), poor health and safety regulations (see: death of Alexei Cherepanov) and a poor safety record when it comes to charter planes (see: the tragic Yaroslavl plane crash of 2011).  However, it does produce an absolute ton of quality NHLers, going back decades: the likes of Sergei Federov, Sergei Makarov, Igor Larionov, and Pavel Bure were trailblazing Russians coming out of the Soviet era system of player production; this led on to future stars like Pavel Datsyuk, Ilya Kovalchuk, Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin and Evgeni Malkin becoming some of the best players in the world today.  Players to watch include Nail Yakupov (EDM) – although he is a product of the Canadian OHL rather than the KHL – Evgeny Kuznetzov (WAS) and Vladimir Tarasenko (STL).  The current champions of this league are Dynamo Moscow, who defeated Avangard Omsk in 7 games in the Gagarin Cup Finals.

EIHL (Great Britain) – Of course I couldn’t have a list of leagues to follow in the event of a lockout on this blog without including the Elite League!  This 10 team league was formed in 2003 following the demise of the Ice Hockey Superleague, and is the highest level of competition in the UK.  Unfortunately, the league hasn’t had much success in terms of getting players over to the NHL – over the years only the legendary Tony Hand and Colin Shields have come anywhere close – but then I don’t think that’s the modus operandi of the league.  This is actually a great league to follow and wonderfully entertaining, despite it’s small size, due to being a fairly high scoring affair and containing a lot of rough, physical play.  Many of the teams have a devoted following, and it’s a shame more cities around the UK can’t experience ice hockey even if it is at the relatively low-level that the EIHL offers (somewhere between ECHL and CIS level hockey – good but not quite there in overall quality).  It’s most famous player other than Tony Hand, is probably perenially-undersized Theo Fleury, formerly a standout NHL scoring star for the Calgary Flames, who played here following his ban for substance abuse.   Not having SkySports, I am unsure of whether it was televised last season, but Sky does usually offer some coverage, so definitely check it out if you can – lockout or no lockout!!!  The current champions are the Nottingham Panthers who defeated the Cardiff Devils in the Playoff Finals.

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