From Russia with Shove It

It's not Stanley, but that doesn't make it meaningless.

The hardest thing about the lockout is the lack of options.

Since September, NHL fans have been screaming for an option, but we don’t have one. We have other hockey we can watch, but the constellation of forces the NHL controls- in this case, not just the elite level of play, the famous franchises, and the Stanley Cup, but also its web of television rights and luxurious arenas- cannot be replicated by any other league. This, objectively, sucks, and fans aren’t shy about saying so. We bitch and moan and whine and fret and lament to the heavens how tragic it is that our hearts should be beholden to this imploding League. We hate that we’ll have to come back after this lockout just like we did after the last, but it’s not just the fans that the NHL is counting on. It’s also the players, vast numbers of whom will come back as well. Like the spectators, most players have no other choice they can imagine exercising. Like us, their only option is to wait, and hope.

But there are a fortunate few who seem to think they have an alternate option. In recent weeks, as the lockout rhetoric has amped up, some Russian players have given interviews suggesting that, in their minds, the NHL is not necessarily the end all and be all of hockey. Ilya Bryzgalov commented, quite practically, that the money to be made in the KHL was good and that there’s something nice about playing in your own country. Kovalchuk and Ovechkin stated that, if there was a significant cut in their salaries under the new CBA, they would consider staying in Russia. And most recently, Sergei Kostitsyn expressed a certain lack of enthusiasm for North American life, and said that as far as he was concerned, a long lockout wouldn’t be such a terrible fate.

These might be nothing more than words. There are still plenty of reasons why elite Russian players would prefer to make their careers in the NHL over the KHL: the level of NHL competition is higher, the League older and (sort of, usually) more stable, the experience of winning the Stanley Cup is inimitable. I would not expect a mass exodus of high-level, well-paid Russian players back to their country anytime soon.

They might be nothing more than words, but they are words that point to the future. The KHL is growing. Its salaries, for some players, are already on par with what the NHL can offer, and it’s already claimed a chunk of players who might otherwise have ended up in North America. The number of Russians in the NHL is falling. The choice Ovechkin is loudly threatening is one that dozens of his less gifted countrymen have already made silently. Not everyone who could conceivably make it in the NHL wants to do so anymore.

However, it is one thing never to come to the NHL and another to quit it, and to some North American ears these threats of giving up on the League seem crass, even ungrateful. As Greg Wyshynski commented on Puck Daddy and on the Marek vs. Wyshynski podcast (October 22nd edition), these guys owe their star status and the millions they already have to the NHL.  It’s “off-putting” to see them show such disregard for an institution that usually commends reverence, one that their North American counterparts are unwilling to give up on even as they trash the owners six ways from Sunday.  And, to be sure, if you’re a Devils fan, a Caps fan, a Preds fan, a Flyers- okay, probably not if you’re a Flyers fan, but anyway- these comments have to hurt a little.  Even with a rolled-back contract, these players are huge investments for your team, for you personally.  It must be hard to hear them talk so casually about abandoning the whole continent.

This is, to me, a terrifically interesting question: do Russian players owe the NHL any loyalty? Heck, does anybody owe the NHL any loyalty? The National Hockey League isn’t exactly an institution inspiring of devotion. Subtract the constituent franchises and you’re left with an amalgamation of inconstant owners, inconsistent rules, and Gary Bettman- things of which no one is especially fond. It is, as one is so often reminded these days, a business. And right now, it’s a pretty dysfunctional one.

The concept of loyalty to the NHL sounds like an expanded version of the old attitude people used to have team loyalty back in the day: that players should be grateful to whatever franchise “gave” them the opportunity to play in the Show, that a man should bleed bleu-blanc-rouge or black and gold. That a player should never hold out for more money, never demand a trade, never fraternize with enemy teams. All of these were considered cardinal principles of the hockey code for generations, and all of them have fallen by the wayside now. It is obvious to the modern fan that, regardless of which team drafted them, most players will pursue their own self-interest to another franchise or four over the course of their career. I suspect in the case of the NHL we will find the principle is the same as it was for teams: loyalty is just another word for lack of options. When players feel like they have a plausible alternative, some will take it- an uncontroversial statement, if we were talking about UFA day, that somehow shocks us when Ilya Bryzgalov says it about the KHL.

Maybe there are a few players who play in the NHL purely out of love for its ineffable mystique, but I suspect, for many, its charms are more prosaic. The NHL is attractive to players for concrete reasons: it offers the best money, the most publicity, and the highest level of competition. It holds the rights to the continent’s oldest and most venerated franchises and its oldest and most venerated trophy. But it is only the nexus of all these things that allows it to keep its nearly universal hold on player loyalty, for each of them appeal in different amounts to different guys regardless of culture. Every Canadian everywhere knows the right thing to say about the NHL- best league in the world, childhood dream, blah blah blah- but it is a known fact that Canadian hockey players never speak the truth to Canadian hockey media (you have only to look at the Canadian hockey media’s shocked reaction to the Russian’s comments to see the price of departing from the Official Cliches). Do they have some sentimental attachment to the lore and aura of the NHL? Sure, to some degree or another, but then again, lots of them grew up with an attachment to the lore and aura of the Toronto Maple Leafs and still played long, happy careers for the Habs or Kings or Panthers. The bond between the NHL and its player base, North American and European alike, is cemented by money, monopoly, and familiarity more than loyalty.

Imagine separating the different elements of the NHL’s power and it becomes obvious how player loyalties might separate along with them. If the NHL lost control of the Cup to a rebel league, some players would follow it away. If the NHL was no longer able to pay highest salaries, some players would go where the money was better. The lockout and the labor war beneath it fragment the NHL’s claims, as owners fight to roll back (through escrow) the contracts they’ve already signed and to pay players less in the future. It not only undermines salaries but also the impression of the League’s stability. Hockey players only have a limited number of years to make their money. The more seasons the NHL kills, the more it forces them to look elsewhere. One of the consequences of forcing players to look elsewhere is that some of them might just like what they find there.

Of course the fragmentation is felt most acutely by Russian players, who have both a history of being unfavorably stereotyped in North America and a second high-level hockey option right in their own backyard. North American hockey fans have become so used to the European influx that we take it for granted, assuming it’s an easy enough journey and happily made, but not everyone is thrilled to have to emigrate to a new country for work. The pull of home, or the familiar culture of one’s home, is strong. It’s what keeps plenty of North American minor leaguers plying their trade in tiny ECHL cities rather than taking off to play Asia League in Tokyo. When the NHL offered both the best money and the best competition, its allure might have been enough to pull away all but the most ardent homebodies from their native lands, but if the money is better in the KHL and the level of competition rises, I expect there are many Russian players who would prefer to play on more familiar rinks. That’s not wrong. It’s human, and if a player from your home city expressed the same affectionate wish, you’d find it touching.

It’s a difficult thing to tell anyone where their loyalties should lie, for we are all beings of divided loyalties. How many different things can lay an honest claim to human allegiance? Country, hometown, family, friends, lovers, employers, teammates, and those are only the external forces. Within oneself, obligation may pull against affection, passion against practicality, ethics against greed, ambition against self-sacrifice, dreams against desires. Everyone makes a different peace with their conflicted selves, a malleable cycle of shifting loyalties to this, that, and the other. As the KHL rises, it’s reasonable to expect that Russian players will feel the combination of nationalism, familiarity, and money is enough to counterbalance what the NHL can offer, and as more of them make that choice, the level of competition in the KHL will rise, making the choice even easier for others. Right now the National Hockey League is in the privileged position of not having to compete with anyone for the best hockey players in the world, and probably it will never have to compete for the best Canadians. But someday soon it may find that not all of the best in the world take emigration for granted anymore.

That will be a very interesting day.