And so it was late last week that another Eastern European-born player said of the NHL lockout, “Screw it we’ll all just stay in the KHL anyway and make a bunch of money tax free and no one will call us lazy Russians even though we’re from Belarus or whatever and also sure run a much higher risk of injury and poor treatment but at least we won’t have to deal with Gary Bettman any more right?” Or something to that effect, anyway.
This time it was Sergei Kostitsyn who uttered these things, echoing the semi-vague threats of Ilya Bryzgalov and Alex Ovechkin before him, and perhaps even speaking for other, as-yet-unrevealed European-born NHLers currently playing in the KHL. And while his assertion that Columbus is relatively gloomier than Siberia may well be true — I’ve been to the former, but not the latter, but did find it to be more than a little drab — the actual threat he’s now espousing as well rings hollow for two reasons.
First, he, like Bryzgalov and Ovechkin, would be leaving money on the table and also violating the admittedly-shaky transfer agreement between the NHL and KHL. Kostitsyn (who, yes I know, is Belarusian) is due another $6 million over the next two seasons from Nashville (well, less whatever he loses to this lockout), Bryzgalov would be leaving $41 million, and Ovechkin skipping out on $88 million. They would be foolish to do so, obviously.
Second, and far more importantly, if no one in North America ever saw Sergei Kostitsyn, or indeed, the vast, vast majority of Russian and other Eastern European players play hockey on their favorite NHL teams ever again, the net result would be a collective shrug.
Think about it: All this hootin’ and hollerin’ about how “the NHL doesn’t treat us fairly so we’d rather stay here,” isn’t exactly coming from the most captivating Eastern European talents. Ovechkin, I acknowledge, is a voice that must be listened to on some level because of who he is — or rather, who he seems to have been in the past and may not be any more — but what do you think the reaction is if Bryzgalov, for example, tells the Flyers thanks for the $10 million last season, but he’s done with North America? Men and women sobbing openly? Try dancing in the streets. Getting out from under that nine-year contract, given to a 31-year-old would be a good idea if he was anything less than a world-beating goaltender, let alone one who can’t stop bleeding goals for CSKA against a bunch of Russians of whom no one stateside has ever heard or will ever hear. Sure, we get fewer jokes about huskies and bears and parks and tigers and the universe, but Flyers get an extra $5.67 million in cap space every year (or whatever the NHL chisels that down to in the next CBA), and far fewer headaches.
Likewise, if you can pick Sergei Kostitsyn out of a lineup, you are either the die-hardest Preds or Habs fan on the planet, or Andrei Kostitsyn.
The simple fact of the matter is that when it comes to most Eastern talent, it, like most Canadian or American or Scandinavian talent, wouldn’t be missed, and is replaced relatively easily. What are there, five Russians in the entire NHL who people would actually pay money to see, and are currently locked out in the KHL? We’re talking guys who actually put asses in seats in the NHL. Evgeni Malkin, check. Pavel Datsyuk, check. Ilya Kovalchuk, check (unless it’s one of the weeks in which the hockey world collectively decides he’s lazy and not living up to his contract). Alex Ovechkin, check (especially if this is three years ago). Okay, I only got to four off the top of my head. Maybe Anton Volchenkov? And that’s only if you really, really, really like no-offense defensemen.
The Capitals were all too happy to let Alex Semin, good though he may be, skip town to a divisional rival. Sergei Gonchar and Andrei Markov have seen far better days. Dmitry Kulikov is a good, young defenseman, to be sure, but few stateside would weep if any of these guys actually never came back. They would fistpump the night away if Anton Babchuk never came back to Calgary. No one is pleading for one more chance to see Nik Antropov. Meanwhile, it’s fairly certain that the Oilers would miss a guy like Nail Yakupov, who looked just about NHL-ready last season and is doing only okay in the KHL right now, and the same can be said of Washington’s Evgeny Kuznetsov, but those are guys who never played before an NHL audience, and therefore couldn’t really be missed by them.
I understand, through all this, that these KHLers probably don’t give a rat’s ass whether anyone in North America misses or cares about them. But the feeling is pretty much mutual. Which is why their threats are pointless. Have fun over there, guys.