Story #49

NHL-lockout floods European leagues with 388 players

2004-05 season

 

The loss of the 2004-05 NHL season came as a surprise to no one. For at least a couple of years prior to September 15, 2004, it had been clear that NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHL Players’ Association executive director Bob Goodenow were on the road to conflict, and neither party was going to give in an inch. If these signs weren’t clear enough indication, then the World Cup of Hockey left no doubt.

The final game was scheduled for September 14, 2004, its ending to come just hours before the Collective Bargaining Agreement was set to expire. Sure enough, after Canada beat Finland 3-2 in a terrific final, the players went home and didn’t come back for nearly 12 months. Despite the extraordinary events that ensued, fans of the game realised one important fact — the NHL might be the best league in the world, but it certainly wasn’t the only league around.

The world of hockey was faced with a unique situation. Some 800 players wanted to play the game they loved, but it wasn’t going to be in the NHL. For a small number of those players, no NHL meant returning whence they came. Alexander Ovechkin, for instance, simply kept on playing in Russia with Dynamo Moscow, and newly-drafted Evgeni Malkin simply stayed put with Magnitogorsk. Canadian teens stayed in junior leagues a year longer, and American kids simply remained in NCAA. Other players returned to their roots. Scott Gomez, for instance, returned to Alaska and played for the Alaska Aces of the ECHL.

But there were still two big groups of players looking for ice time: established North Americans and veteran Europeans. At first, players going to Europe seemed like a great boon for fans and teams. Who, after all, could object to the Sedin twins returning to MODO for a few games? And Saku Koivu returning to TPS Turku was a dream scenario for fans of the player and team. If Davos wanted to sign Joe Thornton and Rick Nash, who could possibly object to these two amazing players dressing for the start of a new season in Switzerland?

Two problems occurred, though. Firstly, the NHL was clearly nowhere near a resolution, and the lockout was not being measured in games lost but in weeks and months lost. And, second, the arrival of players to Europe was not in the form of one or two stars on one or two teams — in all, nearly 400 NHLers flooded European hockey. The signings and arrivals may have benefited the individual players and club teams, but it caused enormous friction between the NHLers and the European players who were being forced off the team to make way for the newcomers.

Some Canadians playing in Europe openly criticised the NHLers, saying they were taking jobs away from players in Europe. The NHLers countered by saying that’s what those players complaining had done to Europeans already. In all, it made for a strange and uncomfortable year, one marked by fantastic hockey and improved quality of play, but one equally that proved divisive.

About the Top 100 Stories

As part of the IIHF's 100th anniversary celebrations, www.IIHF.com is featuring the 100 top international hockey stories from the past century (1908-2008). Starting now and continuing through the 2008 IIHF World Championships in Canada, we will bring you approximately three stories a week counting down from Number 100 to Number 11.

 

The Final Top 10 Countdown will be one of the highlights of the IIHF's Centennial Gala Evening in Quebec City on May 17, the day prior to the Gold Medal Game of the 2008 World Championship.

 

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