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Career-killer: Lockout means many players will never skate in NHL again

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Another page of the calendar has flipped over and with the NHL lockout closing in on two months, even the most cheerful optimist has to be fretting about the damage being done to the ol' circuit and to the game.

First, the obvious and basic doom and gloom of the whole thing: owners are losing gobs of cash with arenas dark. And the players, with an average career-span of 5 1/2 seasons, are seeing a chunk of their prime earning years choked dry as negotiations on a new deal remain stalled.

Those meaty hits can leave some nasty scars.

Now, go ahead and continue to discuss ad nauseum all the unresolved issues of the lockout if you wish. Splitting hockey-related revenue... the "make whole" concept... rollbacks... hard caps... Those debates have and will continue to rage until the NHL and the NHL Players' Association put their signatures on a new collective bargaining agreement.

But another question might be this:

If the lockout robs everyone of another season, as it did in 2004-05, what will the league and its 30 teams look like when they do finally get back to work?

Closer to home, who will fill the Winnipeg Jets' sweaters if this thing drags on and on and on?

Consider that of the current collection of Jets, seven are in the final year of their contracts and would be unrestricted free agents July 1 -- forwards Nik Antropov, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Kyle Wellwood and Antti Miettinen, defencemen Ron Hainsey and Grant Clitsome and goaltender Al Montoya. Another seven players -- Blake Wheeler, Bryan Little, Alex Burmistrov, Patrice Cormier, Spencer Machacek, Zach Bogosian and Paul Postma -- are all slated to become restricted free agents.

Translation: that's a huge potential roster turnover.

"I sure hope the players know what they're doing here," said Ron Waterman, an investment advisor at The National Bank in Winnipeg. "There's some long-term factors. Some of these guys may never play in the NHL again."

We bring Waterman into the discussion here for two reasons: First, he's a diehard hockey fan. And, second, missing the NHL desperately, he decided to crunch some lockout-related numbers. And what he found is eye-opening.

Critical among his discoveries:

Using stats available on the league's website, NHL.com, Waterman determined there were 1,009 players who played at least one game during the 2003-04 season that preceded the last lockout. Of that group, 241 -- or 23.9 per cent -- never played another game in the post-lockout NHL.

Included among that group were a number of marquee players who were fighting to add one more year to their career. Names like Val Bure, Shayne Corson, Adam Oates, Igor Larionov, Mark Messier, Al MacInnis, Vincent Damphousse, Mike Keane and Aleksey Morozov.

The Morozov name might not ring a bell, but it does serve as an example as to the dramatic impact the last lockout had on some NHL clubs and could have again going forward. In 2003-04 Morozov, then 27, was the second-leading scorer (16 goals, 34 assists) on a very bad Pittsburgh Penguins squad that finished the year 23-47-8-4. (How bad were the Pens? Consider this: their leading scorer was a defenceman, the immortal Dick Tarnstrom, who had 16 goals and 36 assists).

During the lockout year of 2004-05 Morozov returned to Russia to suit up for Ak Bars Kazan and opted to stay when the NHL and NHLPA finally settled. Not only has he become one of the most-prolific players in the KHL, he captained Russia at the 2010 Winter Olympics and his country's gold-medal squads at the 2008 and 2009 IIHF world championships.

And when the NHL returned the Penguins were still bad -- they finished '05-06 with a 22-46-14 record -- but the face of the franchise was now Sidney Crosby, who led the team with 102 points (39 goals and 63 points) and was the runner-up to Alex Ovechkin for the Calder Trophy as the top rookie.

But how's this for turnover? Of the 34 players who played at least one game for the Pens in '03-04, just 12 suited up for the club after the lockout.

Granted, every off-season brings turnover, whether it's to a Stanley Cup side or a bottom- feeder. But the Pens' situation does demonstrate the impact a year away from the game can have on a player, especially a third- or fourth-liner at risk of losing his job to a younger player who may blossom with a development year in the American Hockey League.

More numbers, courtesy Waterman, to back up the fact that reaching and staying at the game's elite level is a daily grind certainly not helped by another lockout:

Comparing the 2010-11 NHL roster to 2011-12 to determine the roster turnover, 176 of 978 players did not play from one year to the next. That's an attrition rate of 18 per cent just from one winter to the next.

And so, this is the question a lot of NHLers must be asking themselves right now: Is the fight to preserve percentage points of a salary worth the risk of losing an entire season? Or even half a season? Or a handful of paycheques?

Before we go any further, let's be clear: These eye-opening lockout numbers and the cold, hard truth behind them -- another study revealed that more than half of NHL players play less than 100 games in their career -- isn't some lockout-sponsored propaganda being funded and spread by the NHL owners to scare their dance partner back to the negotiating table.

Still, as the lockout drags on, frustration can turn to fear. After all, it's tough enough just to make it to the NHL. Staying there -- especially while draft picks and prospects are on the ice right now honing their skills in the CHL, NCAA, AHL or overseas -- is an even tougher fight.

"I really don't want to lose a whole year... nobody does," said Jet centre Bryan Little. "Everyone's frustrated, but who wants to lose a year of their career? I'm 24, I'd like to think I'm right in the middle of my career. Some guys only have a couple years left and they might lose an entire year. It's sad to think of that. And then there are those guys that are close to cracking a lineup or just made it last year and are now in the minors or overseas or waiting it out.

"All we want is for this to get figured out, to get it taken care of, and to play."

And that's true whether it's a player like Little, seemingly with several years ahead of him, or veteran stars like Teemu Selanne, Daniel Alfredsson or Martin Brodeur trying to squeeze one more year out of their hall-of-fame career. It's true whether it's the game's mega-stars like Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos or guys who have battled just to get to the bigs like Winnipeg product Ryan Reaves of the St. Louis Blues.

"I can't say I'm thinking about a lost year," began Reaves. "I'm still hopeful that something gets done before that happens. It's obviously a possibility. The players want to play, I hope the owners want to play and so I'm still optimistic there will be a season.

"It's frustrating. For a young player like me, last year was my first year. This year would have been my first on a one-way contract. And so to possibly lose that... it's frustrating. I came up through the system for 31/2-4 years in the minors. I worked hard to get here and so it would be frustrating to see all that go down the drain because of this dispute.

"What you learn is this is a business. But it's just so unfortunate for all those guys who might not get back into it if we lose this year. That's what happened last lockout. Let's hope that doesn't happen again."

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @WFPEdTait


2003-04 NHL roster analysis

Number of PlayersNever PlayedStill in NHL

that played at leastin NHL again

1 game in 2003-04

 

Anaheim3285

Atlanta3688

Boston34108

Buffalo33510

Calgary3039

Carolina3175

Chicago3668

Colorado34126

Columbus37105

Dallas3596

Detroit3455

Edmonton31411

Florida341310

Los Angeles38117

Minnesota2629

Montreal31612

Nashville37814

New Jersey3177

N.Y. Islanders3275

N.Y. Rangers39134

Ottawa32512

Philadelphia35106

Phoenix3076

Pittsburgh34114

San Jose2935

St. Louis38114

Tampa Bay2528

Toronto37116

Vancouver3559

Washington43226

 

Total1,009 241220

(25 are goalies)

 

Source: Ron Waterman / www.nhl.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 3, 2012 C4

History

Updated on Monday, November 5, 2012 at 5:30 PM CST: Corrects typos.

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