Fringe Players and the “absolute nonsense” of NHL Migration

Alexander Ovechkin. Photo from RT.com

Yahoo Sports recently released an article titled, NHL players on the move to Europe during lockout, touching briefly on the fact that with NHLers moving over to play in the KHL and other European leagues a debate has started about how many players are forced out of their day jobs.  Jaromir Jagr is quoted in the article stating, “That’s absolute nonsense. You can believe me that young players now have somebody to learn from. I doubt that I would have ever reached my hockey level if I hadn’t had players such as Paul Coffey and Mario Lemieux around me.  I learned from them everyday.” Well, okay. That’s one way to look at it Jaromir.

Fringe and two-way players have been discussed in relation to the lockout briefly by other HIS bloggers but I would like to venture further with the topic.  What Jagr says isn’t necessarily incorrect – I’m sure many players’ games improve because of the presence of “the world’s finest”.  But I believe the formerly-mulletted one has missed the point.  Now, anyone who knows me knows that math is far from my forte but I do understand that sports and teams are numbers games.  A team can only have so many players.  A bench can only fit so many butts. Payroll can only sign so many cheques. Therefore, simple math dictates that if Ovechkin, Malkin, Chara, Kovalchuk and friends join Dynamo, Lev Praha, and SKA St. Petersburg there are other who will not get the opportunity to suit up.  Sports, as much as we lament it sometimes, is a business.  The KHL and others are not in the habit of keeping players around to learn from Ovi so that when he leaves they can pick up where he left off.  Having Malkin on the ice now means more money through the gate now.  Who plays tomorrow is not necessarily on today’s to-do list.  Therefore, math has determined that some players will have to find some other way to pay the bills.

Now what about the players who play in the NHL (sometimes) but don’t make millions upon millions?

As Fan Fuel blogger Chris O’Neil points out

While most owners made themselves billionaires in ventures that had little to nothing to do with hockey, the players are millionaires because of hockey.  The average NHL hockey player makes about $2.4 million according to Bloomberg.  The reality is that the overwhelming majority of hockey players are qualified to do very little else besides hockey and almost nothing that would earn them the same income that they do playing in the NHL.

My guess is most NHLers wouldn’t be able to trade their high school diplomas in for anything other than an average paying job that would require thirty years of service to pay off a mortgage just like 99 per cent of the population…I think of a player like Joey Crabb who at 29 years old has never played a full season in the NHL and never made over $200,000 on his AHL contract…Crabb was due to make $950,000 on a one-way contract with the Capitals…At 29 years old this could very well be his last contract and one that sets him up for life.

$2.4 million as an average salary sounds pretty decent but remember how inflated those salaries get on the one side with the likes of Crosby, Giroux, Malkin etc., which means that in order to bring that back down to $2.4M you’ve got a whole lot of players on the 6 figure side.  I think that Crabb is the perfect example of the players who get lost in the lockout shuffle, and every team has a few of these players.  The journeymen who, as Neil suggests, have no Plan B. They put all their eggs in the hockey basket and some days it pays off and other days it makes one wonder if they made the right choices in life.  For many players there is far more at stake than this year’s salary.

For example, player pensions are determined by the length of a player’s career.  For the big names pensions are irrelevant so long as they don’t blow their salaries and endorsement deals on women, cars, and other recreational fun.  However, for the Joey Crabbs of the league every game counts.  In the current CBA, which was last amended in 1993, players with less than 400 games to their name will receive $8,000 CDN per year in pension payments after the age of 45.  If a player has played more than 400 games in the NHL they get bumped up to $12,500.  And yes, if you missed that they must be games played in the NHL.  Crabb currently has 115 NHL games to his credit, well short of the 400 he needs for that extra pension amount and also short of the 160 games he needs in order to be eligible for any pension at all.  This is exactly why that new contract could make or break him.  It could determine whether he can live relatively comfortably into his transition out of hockey or if he has to start pounding the pavement as soon as he hangs up his jersey.  Furthermore, I believe (and correct me if I’m wrong) that games where players are healthy scratches do not count as a “game played”.  I haven’t been able to find out if the KHL offers a similar pension plan for its players but regardless games not played generally equates to lost wages, so I hope that Jagr is not nearly as naive as his comment makes him seem.

Chara states that, at this point, it is important for him to keep in shape and stay in the hockey mindset so that when an agreement is reached he will be ready to go.  It is interesting that those with millions in the bank are focused on their fitness and their games, whereas others really just need some cash flow.  For the Crabbs of the NHL, and the players of the AHL and KHL the lockout represents more than just labour migration and disputes.  Not every athlete contract is created equal and in order for a few to make millions many will not.  Most hockey players will have to find other forms of work once their careers are over but when you add a lockout or two into the equation, some may have to make that transition sooner than anticipated.

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About courtneyszto
Public sociologist and tempered radical in training. Sports is my life. I recently graduated from the University of Toronto with my Masters in Exercise Science. My Master's thesis focused on corporate social responsibility in professional sports, international development and gender equality. My undergraduate degree is Bachelor of Human Kinetics in Sport Management. I am a Vancouver Canucks fan through and through. I have worked in event management, outdoor education, the golf industry, and coached tennis. Soon to be PhD student.

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