Logan Couture is ready to play NHL hockey again.
So ready in fact, that he left the European club he had been playing with early to return home to North American preparation and anticipation of once again donning a San Jose Sharks jersey and taking NHL ice.
The only problem is that the NHL still isn’t ready for him, nor anyone else.
In the meantime, Couture will settle for suiting up along side Steven Stamkos, PK Subban, Dion Phaneuf, Phil Kessel, and 34 other locked out NHL players on December 19th at Maple Leaf Garde—err, the Mattamy Athletic Centre at the Gardens in Toronto, for the 2012 RBC Play Hockey Charity Challenge, in support of the NHLPA’s Goals and Dreams Fund.
I caught up with Logan via telephone for an interview just prior to the event, and he graciously chatted with me about everything from his experience in Europe, to his thoughts on the lockout, the owners, and where he’ll be skating until the NHL finally calls.
You just returned home to Ontario after a three month stint with Genève-Servette in Switzerland’s National League A. How was your experience over there, and how does it feel to be home?
Couture: “It’s good to be back. I’d rather be playing inSan Jose, but it does mean I get to spend some time with my family. This will be my first Christmas at home in four or five years since my junior days, so I’m looking forward to that. It was my first time in Europe, and the distance from my family and time change were both really tough.
Switzerland’s a beautiful country, so it was a good experience in that sense. The food was really good. Driving though theAlpson road trips was pretty cool. The hockey was pretty good and the organization was great. They treated me and my teammates very, very well. Being so far away was the toughest thing. I missed my family. Not being able to watch sporting events at regular times and stuff like that was hard too. I was watching football games at 1 am, and I missed the baseball playoffs. I’m a big fan, so that was tough for me. I tried to keep up with it as best as I could though.”
Why did you leave the team? Statistically you were doing great – your 23 points in 22 games still lead the team in points today, despite being in Canada. Did you part on good terms?
Couture: “Yeah I left on good terms. I just told them that I was thankful for the opportunity that they gave me, but that I wanted to come back home because I felt I was ready to play back over here. I had hoped the season would have started by now, but in the meantime I’m enjoying spending time with my family while I can. I went over there to get in shape and get ready for the NHL season. After the three months I was there, I felt like I was ready to come back and play over here, with the hope that the season was going to start. I’m sure a lot of the other guys who have also come back felt the same way. You get to a point where you feel good about your game, you feel like you’re ready to play, and where you don’t want to risk injury anymore. I figured it was time for me to come back home.”
You were one of 19 locked out NHL players competing in Switzerland. Why did you choose Switzerland out of all countries you could have chosen; and in particular, why Genève-Servette?
Couture: “I chose Switzerland because Joe [Thornton] told me about how good of an experience he had there during the last lockout. The general consensus from guys on our team was that they’d heard great things about Switzerland. I talked with my agent, and we worked out a deal with the team there. Genève-Servette gave me a chance and said I could come over and play for them as quickly as I wanted, so I agreed to come.”
How did you interact with Joe Thornton on the ice when your team played his team, Davos? As NHL teammates, do you guys go easy on each other in a league that doesn’t matter as much as the NHL, or if you had him lined up in the corner did you hit him like anyone else? What about the other NHLers in the league when you played against them?
Couture: “If it’s Joe, I’m not going to hit him over there, that’s for sure. He’s a teammate. Obviously I don’t want to get hurt either. I’m not the most physical player in the world, and over there I was even less of a physical player just because I didn’t want to take that chance of getting hurt. I try not to put myself in dangerous spots. You have to be careful though, hockey’s a dangerous sport.”
As you will be going into your fourth NHL season eventually, do you feel playing against a lower level of competition in Europe may have been a detriment to your development as an NHL player? For example, did the unfamiliar size of the ice, or the pace of that league and its players throw off your timing while playing with/against less skilled players than you’re used to? Or maybe you didn’t get passes when and where your used to, or the speed and physicality was harmfully different? Do you think the same is bad for other young NHLers that are now scattered around other European countries, the AHL, and other places to be playing down a level? Will any of this hurt you or them as players when you eventually come back to the NHL?
Couture: “I think it’s the best case scenario for the guys right now. You’d rather be playing than not playing. Even when you’re playing there, it takes some time to get your timing down and into a rhythm. Guys that haven’t played yet this year aren’t going to have that right now; they’re going to be behind in that aspect when it’s time to play again. You are playing with lesser skilled guys over there, but I still think that being on the ice every day in practice and games will make you a better player, no matter who you’re playing with, as long as you’re working on your game. I spent as much time as I could after practice working on puck skills and different things, trying to improve.”
What do you think about the notion of your arrival on that team meaning you squeezed someone else out of their lineup – maybe a domestic player, or someone who won’t ever make it to the NHL – while you were only a temporary member of that team? In your opinion, is it fair for locked out NHL players to come to Europe and take those jobs?
Couture: “It’s hockey. It’s a competitive sport. Would people be saying the same thing if an 18 year old came into an NHL camp and knocked a veteran out of his job? It’s the same thing – people play to take someone’s job. You go into a training camp to take someone’s job so that you can play. I don’t really understand why people say that. When I madeSan Jose, I ultimately put someone out of a job. That’s just the way hockey is, and all pro sports are.”
Is there any chance that your return home is a cryptic indication that a resolution to the lockout is on the horizon? What are your current thoughts on the lockout?
Couture: “I read a rumor on Twitter that said I was coming back because I knew a deal was coming, but no, there’s nothing like that happening. We’re at a stage now trying to figure out the best way to move forward with these negotiations. We’re hoping something can get done in the near future, but there’s nothing being said right now that’s going lead to a deal in the next couple of days or anything like that. It’s not true.”
Are you optimistic that a deal is indeed forthcoming, and there will still be an NHL season?
Couture: “Yeah, you have to think it’s going to get done. It would just hurt so badly to see a season wasted. It hurt the players last time – I wasn’t in the league yet then, I was just a hockey fan – and it hurt as a fan to watch a full season go by without any hockey. For it to happen two times in an eight year span – I mean it really plays with the fans. It’s tough for a sport to recover, especially in some of the markets down in the States. Even where I play in California, it’s going to be tough for teams to recoup their fan base. In these next couple of weeks, somehow we need to find some way to get a deal done. We’re at a stage right now where we’re trying to do whatever it takes to get the season started. We’re still willing to negotiate. We’re doing what we can to get it going.”
Do you think those California based teams will suffer in particular, despite LA and Anaheim each winning a Stanley Cup in the last five years, plus San Jose’s recent rise to prominence?
Couture: “I can speak for San Jose – in the last couple of years, and even when the team got Joe Thornton, hockey in the area really, really took off. There was an increase in kids starting to play at an earlier age, and stuff like that. I think it’s within reason to think that’s because the Sharks have been good the last six or seven years. They’re selling out every game and people are interested in hockey. You take another year away from those fans and some of the ones you just won over in the last few years are going to leave for something else. Look at Florida – they made the playoffs last year, had a good run, probably won some new fans over – now there’s no hockey, and those fans are fine with something else [note: there’s seven other pro sports teams in that state]. It’s tough to watch.”
Has this lockout left you feeling any ill-will or animosity towards the owners, or San Jose’s owner in particular? Or do you look at this situation objectively as a business deal?
Couture: “I don’t know, it’s all up in the air. The owners aren’t allowed to speak publicly, nor to us. We have no idea what each owner is thinking. I’ve been in meetings before, but you’re in there with [Craig] Leopold, [Jay] Jacobs, [Murray] Edwards – they’re hard line guys, they don’t give you the time of day, and they barely even look at you. They’re there for one reason, and that’s to help their teams make money. I wish we could hear from all 30 teams’ owners, but obviously they’re not letting them speak out and have their opinions known. I’m sure if they were able to, there would be a bunch of them with different opinions right now. All the players are allowed to speak their minds. It’s tough. I don’t know where the San Jose owners stand on this. You hear things, but you never know until you hear it from them, so you can’t really hold judgment against them until you know the truth.”
As far as Players Association meetings and negotiations with the league, how did you stay in the loop while you were overseas, and even now while you’re in Ontario?
Couture: “It’s all through the phone in scheduled conference calls. There’s an app we check for updates. They supply us with numbers for the players who are in the meetings, and if you have a question you want a player to answer instead of Don, you can call the player and ask him, and he tells you word for word what he heard in the meeting. You get 10 to 20 different opinions, usually all saying the same thing. They’re in all those meetings, so we hear the truth from those guys.”
Any chance you would return to Europe over Christmas to compete in the Spengler Cup tournament for Canada? Where are you going to skate until the NHL resumes?
Couture: “No, not this year. I think I’m going to stay inNorth America for the rest of the season. I’m going to skate with the London Knights in the OHL when they start up again after Christmas break. I want to go down and skate with some of the guys in San Jose in a few weeks too, hopeful that the season will start. I don’t know exactly what the timeline is, but there isn’t much time left to get this deal done.”
Dave Cunning is a former pro hockey player turned writer, coach and personal trainer. Follow him on Twitter @davecunning, and read his blog at http://davecunning.wordpress.com. You can follow Logan Couture on Twitter here.