During the lockout, many NHL players have booked it to Europe to play in Russia, Finland, Sweden, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, and everywhere in between. Heck, Canucks’ fourth-liner Dale Weise signed in the Netherlands, where he’s putting up Gretzky-like numbers, with 13 points in 4 games and we learned about Johnny Oduya’s Thailand hockey adventures just yesterday.
Not every NHL players has made the trip across the ocean just yet, with some professing a desire to battle alongside the union reps, while others don’t want to take jobs away from players in other leagues. Still, I wonder if for some NHLers, there’s a fear of going and living in a completely different country with different customs, languages, and food. If so, those players do have an option right here in North America: the East Coast Hockey League.
Three NHLers are already playing in the ECHL, with one more set to join the league and another rumoured to be joining them shortly.
During the 2004-05 lockout, a few NHL players made their way to the ECHL, with Scott Gomez the biggest name among them. Gomez casually dominated, leading the league in scoring with 86 points in 61 games and being named league MVP. The other NHLers didn’t quite have that kind of impact.
Curtis Brown, a third-line centre for the Sabres and Sharks, put up 38 points in 47 games for the San Diego Gulls. Third-line winger Bates Battaglia joined his brother on the Mississippi Sea Wolves, scoring 17 points in 25 games. Defenceman Shane Hnidy joined the Florida Everblades for 19 games, while Predators winger Jeremy Stevenson played 42 games for the South Carolina Stingrays, scoring 29 points.
This time around, the NHLers making their way to the ECHL are slightly bigger names set to make a bigger impact.
The Alaska Aces are already stacked, as Justin has already pointed out. Anchorage natives Brandon Dubinsky, Nate Thompson, and Joey Crabb have joined the team, while Scott Gomez practised with the team during the preseason but chose not to play. That might have something to do with the broken pelvis he suffered on a cheap shot during the 2004-05 lockout, when he was checked into an open bench door Ashlee Langdone of the Bakersfield Condors.
Dubinsky is the biggest name among those three and he currently leads the Aces in scoring with 6 goals and 3 assists in 7 games. Crabb is right behind him with 7 points in just 6 games, while Thompson has chipped in 5 assists in 7 games so far. Dubinsky was even named the ECHL’s player of the week for October 22-28 after scoring 5 goals and 2 assists in three games.
Until now, the Aces were the only ECHL team to sign NHL talent, but two other teams are getting in on the action. The Ontario Reign have signed the Minnesota Wild’s Devin Setoguchi, who could play with the team as early as Friday. Setoguchi scored 19 goals in 69 games for the Wild last season, but with his speed and creativity, he could light up the ECHL.
The San Francisco Bulls, who were on the receiving end of Dubinsky’s player-of-the-week scoring outburst, are hoping to attract the services of Ryane Clowe, who practised with the team on Tuesday. “A lot of this depends on how long the lockout is going to go, but right now, it’s just practice,” says Clowe, but indicated that signing with the Bulls was a distinct possibility. Clowe, who scored 62 points for the Sharks in 2010-11 and 45 points last season would provide a big boost to the Bulls, who are currently last in their division.
It’s an interesting situation for the Bulls, who are the Sharks ECHL affiliate, whereas the Alaska Aces are unaffiliated and the Ontario Reign are affiliated with the Los Angeles Kings. It is unclear if or how that would affect Clowe potentially playing for the club, considering he’s locked out by their parent organization.
The main thing preventing ECHL teams from picking up more NHL players is money. The ECHL has a strict salary cap and simply can’t afford to pay large salaries to individual players. For the Alaska Aces, the three NHLers on the team have close personal ties to the area, explaining their willingness to play for a relative pittance, but Setoguchi seems to have no such connection to the Ontario Reign.
Other ECHL teams aren’t too keen on the Aces and other teams loading up with NHL players. Matt Thomas, coach of the Stockton Thunder, gave his opinion when the Aces came to town:
There is nothing in the ECHL rules that prevents a team from picking up as many NHL players as it wants, but Thunder coach Matt Thomas said he wishes there were limitations.
“Last time I checked we were a developmental league,” Thomas said. “But it’s allowed and those are local guys, and I’m sure if there was an NHL guy living in Stockton who wanted to play we’d have to consider it because we’re paid to win.
“I don’t think it should be allowed. It’s taking away jobs from young guys. It’s nothing against the Alaska Aces or those guys; I just don’t agree with the rule.”