When an NHL'er becomes too old to work anymore, they announce their retirement and look for other ways to become involved in the game.
When an NHL'er becomes undesirable to the 30 teams and is faced with either the choice of being under-appreciated by their team or settling for a situation that isn't beneficial to their family...
They move to Europe.
On Friday, Nashville's Alexander Radulov became the most recent NHL'er to sign on with a European team, returning home to his native Russia to play for Ufa of the KHL (formerly the Russian Superleague)—despite the fact he still had one year remaining on his contract with the Nashville Predators.
Sidenote: Yes, despite the new agreement between the NHL and the KHL (which we'll get to later), to "honor contracts", Radulov has chosen to go back to Russia. Radulov claimed he told the Preds of the interest from overseas and that he wanted to return home, but the Predators didn't call him back, leading him to believe that they either didn't want him or didn't expect him to leave—but can anyone blame them for not expecting him to leave when he's still under contract?
Dumbfounded would be the word for what they're feeling in Nashville right now.
He joins Jaromir Jagr who, back on July 4th, signed a letter of intent with Avangard Omsk, as the man whose first name is an anagram for 'Mario Jr.' (for all you Pens fans out there) has chosen to end his professional hockey career in Russia, Wade Dubielewicz, Patrick Thoresen, Martin Straka, Chris Simon, John Grahame, and of course—Captain Headcase—Ray Emery as players who have chosen to play in Europe, rather than play the waiting game in the NHL.
Whether it be with the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), Sweden, Switzerland, or the Czech Republic though, this could be an inkling of the changing times of hockey on a world stage.
And as much as we shrug it off, the KHL—and European hockey in general—could one day rise to astronomical levels.
Instead of challenging each other however, the NHL and KHL have made it appear as if they want to work on a common level—on Thursday an agreement between the two leagues was reached to respect current player contracts—and try to enrich each others' leagues.
Both have agreed that if they were to turn their leagues towards competition between each other, then the loser would be the game itself, and that neither is a threat, so much as a partner as they move towards the future—they're even considering a world-wide competition in 2012.
But despite the 'warm and fuzzies' being shown between the leaders of the two leagues, the KHL still stands to be a dangerous adversary to the NHL, potentially poaching European and North American talents.
As Radulov has shown, players long to play close to home—something you can discover just as easily by merely looking at the NHL during free agency—so with such an expanding European influence in the NHL, it wouldn't be surprising to see some of the kids get homesick and want to return home, especially when they're being drafted at the ages of 18, 19, and 20.
Playing so close to home not only raises a players' comfort level, but the respect they receive as well. So many times European players are referred to as "soft" or " flaky" early in their careers, and they can't shake that mantra—they're stuck with that perception until they earn their stripes—meanwhile a Canadian or American kid can be dubbed the "savior of a franchise" without even taking a step on the ice, and the word bust will hardly be brought up until it actually happens.
Then there are the European players who play in markets with short memories with the "what have you done for us lately" mentality, where a player consistently putting up consistent, solid numbers, will be thrown under the bus because of the performance of the players around him, while there are players playing in markets that don't receive the media coverage or notoriety that they could receive playing in KHL market.
In each of the cases above, a majority of these attitudes shouldn't last very long in the NHL and rightfully so—the case still stands it takes a special player to play here—however, some of these players are well-tied throughout the NHL to some of the more recognizable European players, and what's not to say that the Marian Gaboriks and Pavel Datsyuks aren't intrigued by the idea of signing with a Russian team instead of an NHL team when faced with free agency?
I mean what's better than playing in your home country with one of your best friends? For some, the idea of familiarity is the final "seal of approval" in signing with certain teams.
For the North American players, it's a little different however. A few have gone over to resurrect careers, while some have left the NHL because the opportunities are better to become stars and forge solid careers, while some (like the native Russians) go for family reasons.
Sidenote: For the record, Patrick Thoresen is leaving because he asked Philadelphia for a one-way deal so he could be paid the same in the AHL and the NHL so he'd be able to support his family. He couldn't get it so he went with the guaranteed money—when we're talking about family and a guy who's not going to be taking in millions of dollars, I don't think you can fault him.
So take Ray Emery for instance. A player who has essentially been frozen-out of the NHL looked to find himself again in the KHL. If he fizzles out again, it's no big deal. If he becomes a star however, his influence over North American NHL'ers could increase.
Again, we come to the power of influence—there are undoubtedly a few NHL players who could be enticed by the idea of playing in an entirely new market, and new found success can be one of the greatest influences—if a player like Emery can go somewhere and transform himself into a Hockey Hero, there's no telling what could start running through other players' minds.
All this does is lead to more questions however, like what happens to the fans?
If you're a Ray Emery fan, do you follow him to Russia? Let's say Alexander Radulov had stayed long enough to become an All-Star in Nashville with a legitimate following—if he were to leave with his popularity at it's highest, will people keep an eye tuned to the KHL to see how he's doing?
We don't even know what kind of coverage the league is going to have online either—these scenarios may seem far-fetched now, but in a few years, things like this could be common-place.
The chickens could be being counted before they're hatched, or we could just be turning a watchful eye to the future and preparing ourselves for what might happen. Either way, I wouldn't discount the KHL, or hockey in Europe for that matter—the biggest competition can come from the most unlikely of places.