NHL: The Pros and Cons of Players Competing in Europe During a Lockout

Steve SilvermanFeatured ColumnistSeptember 11, 2012

Playing hockey in Europe will be an option for players if they are locked out of the NHL..
Playing hockey in Europe will be an option for players if they are locked out of the NHL..Epsilon/Getty Images

A lockout appears to be on the horizon.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said that if the league and the Players' Association did not have an agreement by Sept. 15, players would be locked out and that training camp would not go on as scheduled.

The NHL has a poor track record as far as labor negotiations are concerned. Owners and players did not come to an agreement in 2004-05 and the season was cancelled. Players were forced to consider other leagues outside of North America if they decided they needed the money to survive or if they just wanted to play.

This is an option that is not as plentiful in other sports. There are no meaningful options for NFL players in a similar work stoppage. There might be a few limited opportunities in Asia for Major League Baseball players in Asia.

NBA players would have some options, but not as many as NHL players who could compete in Russia, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Finland and Germany. Sweden may not be an option because the Swedish Elite League does not allow its member clubs to sign locked-out NHL players to temporary contracts until the NHL would actually cancel the season (source: VanHockey.com).

The pay in the European leagues is good—particularly in the Russian KHL—although not as high as it is in the NHL. But it can help see players through when their own league is going through a work stoppage.

There are positives and negatives to playing outside the league. It would seem the positives are rather obvious, while the negatives may be more hidden.

  • Playing in Europe will keep a player's skills from deteriorating. Players have to play and continue to improve or many will lose their edge.
  • Young players in their early and mid-20's may be going through period of significant growth to their game, while older players would slow down dramatically if they didn't play during a long lockout and then tried to mount a comeback when the labor problem was settled.
  • Staying busy by playing organized hockey can also keep a player out of trouble. Athletes who are idle often have a high incidence of problematic behavior.
  • There's the whole income thing. Fans see players who may have multi-million dollar contracts and wonder why they would ever have to worry about money again. But not all players are responsible with their earnings and not all players earn millions. The need to support families doesn't go away just because players are being locked out of the NHL. Many still need to make money.

Playing overseas may also be problematic.

  • Players might not be able to bring their families and the separation could be stressful for themselves and their families.
  • Language issues could exacerbate the feelings of loneliness and misplacement.
  • Competition may be good overseas, but it can vary from league to league. The Russian KHL is widely acknowledged to play an excellent brand of hockey, but it may not be as good elsewhere. When players return from playing in inferior leagues, they may have developed sloppy habits that could impact their game negatively.
  • Medical care from NHL teams and North American hospitals is almost always considered to be top of the line. The medical care overseas may not be as effective in the event of injury or illness.
  • If players don't feel compelled to negotiate because they are playing elsewhere and earning money, then it can make a work stoppage last longer.

If the work stoppage goes on for a long time because players don't feel compelled to bargain, resentment will build from already-angry fans (source: stateofhockeynews.com).

In addition to resentment, casual fans may lose interest.

None of that says the players would be wrong to go overseas and earn a living, but those are ramifications that all players should be aware of before making a decision to play elsewhere.