via CBC

It was announced earlier this morning that locked-out players would be allowed to join the Swedish Elite League. Details are over at Matias Strozyk’s Twitter feed.

You have to wonder, with players going to Europe and the minors to keep in shape while the NHL is locked out, does that increase or decrease the amount of leverage that they have?

A number of people, led by the incorrigible Ryan Lambert, have been making the point on Twitter that the National Hockey League and it’s Players’ Association ought to quit posturing and get in a room and negotiate, but I don’t feel that that’s how things work. There’s no clear deadline for when a season would be missed completely, all we know is that the NHL officially pulled the plug on the 2004-05 season in mid-February of 2005.

No side has any significant leverage right now. The owners aren’t missing out on the big part of their revenues that mostly come in the second half of the season once football is over and games start being shown on NBC, and the players haven’t missed any paycheques yet.

But some will collect them. A number of players, stars even, have taken to Europe and the AHL, as noted above, they’ll be allowed to go to Sweden. Does this give the players more leverage since they can effectively say “we don’t need you, we’ll play right here” or can the owners say “yeah, and making 60% of your NHL paycheque”.

Alexander Ovechkin brought up the point when he discussed the plausibility of staying in Russia:

“Of course, I said it before, before I sign contract, that if the league decides to cut our salaries, cut our contracts for what they want I don’t know how many guys are coming back,” Ovechkin said. “We sign contract before. Why they have to cut our salary and our contracts right now? They sign us. [Now they] want to cut it. I think it’s a stupid idea and stupid decision by NHL, [NHL Commissioner Gary] Bettman and the guys who work there.”

I almost hope it happens, but for different reasons than Mike Milbury, just to keep the NHL on its toes.

At some point, the NHL is going to need a legitimate challenge. It’s not the fans’ fault that the league is headed to its 4th work stoppage since 1992, but the fact that there’s little in the way of competition as a major world league certainly is.

Ellen’s talked about the creation of a “Rebel league” on this blog, and I wrote about the possibility as well, but is it possible that the KHL can grow big enough to attract enough legitimate NHL superstars away that the NHL is scared to lose its stars to a lockout?

I almost hope so.

Out in North America, two Canadian junior teams took to the ice playing their openers in NHL rinks. The Ottawa 67s, thanks to renovations at the Ottawa Civic Centre, have relocated to Kanata, ON for this season. Official attendance was not reported (that’s too technological in Ottawa, apparently) but Sun columnist Don Brennan speculated it was somewhere in the 9000s. It’s respectable, but you hope that crowd grows.

The Edmonton Oil Kings, defending WHL champions, played in front of a reported attendance of 10,976 at Rexall Place, which was well, well above their reported attendance in last season’s opener of 2,808. The Vancouver Giants and Calgary Hitmen can probably expect similar boosts, although the Giants and the Vancouver Canucks don’t share an arena.

Point being though… it’s hockey season. There’s a lot of people who are upset that “hockey is gone” or “hockey is locked out” but that’s just the NHL. There’s lots of hockey being played right now, and some pretty good players for the most part, since players aren’t under the restriction of NHL camps.

Last night’s “first star” out of all the CHL games as determined by Buzzing the Net’s Neate Sager was Anthony Camara, who scored a hat-trick, plus the winning goal with :45 seconds to go. Camara is a Bruins’ prospect, who would otherwise be at camp right now. Keegan Lowe, who had a Gordie Howe hat-trick for the Oil Kings, would be in Carolina Hurricanes camp right now.

This guy is very good, whether he plays in the NHL or not.

There are a glutton of top NHL prospects who are hanging around their junior teams as they await a settlement and a shortened camp. Jonathan Huberdeau could set records in the QMJHL this season (although he recorded a single assist in a loss last night). While Nail Yakupov won’t be in Sarnia this season, a healthy Alex Galchenyuk will. Griffin Reinhart, Slater Koekkoek, Cody Ceci, Scott Laughton and Henrik Samuelsson, other first round picks from last season, played in CHL games last night rather than hanging around NHL camps awaiting the cuts.

Hockey fans’ have leverage now that they didn’t have eight years ago. A lot of people in my timeline were streaming KHL games from yesterday. A couple of colleagues even put together a highlight package. The NHL is going to have to eventually realize that the problem with over-expansion in the 1990s is that, just over a decade later, there are more superstars under the age of 24 than there have ever been, playing for different teams around the globe.

The NHL won’t face a Stanley Cup challenge this season, but if they keep having work stoppages, people are going to ask whether they’re committed to being the top hockey league in the world. Another North American major pro league would be nice, but by the next NHL lockout, streaming technology will be so good that a game in Nizhnekamsk will be in high definition, and the IIHF’s marketing machine will be powerful enough that most of the players will be names already known to dedicated hockey fans since junior. (Also, the KHL sent out this tempting press release this morning)

Hockey is back, it’s as good as it’s ever been, and only the NHL seems to think otherwise with the AHL starting up next month. The NHL’s gamble isn’t that the fans will come back, it’s that all the players will. If they’re going to play for less money anyway, why would they play in a league run by a guy they can’t trust?