NHL players exploring options to play overseas during lockout

Even though the lockout has only been in effect for a handful of days, NHL players are quickly pursuing other options by heading overseas to sign with teams in various leagues.

Pittsburgh Penguin superstar Evgeni Malkin and Ottawa Senators defenseman Sergei Gonchar were two of the first to take flight abroad, both signing in the Metallurg of the KHL amidst rumors that they had begun practicing with Russian teams even before the lockout was implemented.

“The scary part is I think you’ll see some of the best players in the game (going over),” said Calgary Flames forward Mike Cammalleri. “Let’s hope they come back when they’re going to get paid the dollars they’re going to get paid in some of these leagues to go play now.”

The KHL has established guidelines for teams looking to sign NHL talent. Under KHL rules, teams can sign a maximum of three NHL players above their limit of 25. The league also implemented ceiling for salaries of NHL players at a maximum of 65 percent of what they earn under their NHL deals.

However, the Swedish Elite League – another possible avenue for locked out players – has stated that all players must sign a contract for the entire season. But other leagues in countries like Italy and Switzerland are enticing for NHL players and good marketing opportunities for the teams that land those players.

New York Islanders captain Mark Streit and Montreal Canadiens defenseman Yannick Weber both recently announced that they would return home to play in Switzerland. San Jose Sharks forward Joe Thornton also announced that he will be joining the Swiss league after signing with HC Davos. Thornton could begin playing as early as this weekend.

New York Rangers forward Rick Nash could join Thornton soon. Both (pictured above playing for Team Canada) played for Davos during the 2004-05 lockout, helping the team to a league championship.

“If you find the right spot, it can be a real good experience, you meet some nice people and you get to keep playing hockey,” Thornton told ESPN.com. “It worked out well for us I thought.”

More players will likely continue to explore overseas options in the coming days and weeks. According to a report in the Detroit News, Detroit Red Wings forward Pavel Datsyuk has not yet signed with the KHL as previously reported, but is likely to make a decision in the coming days.

“We’ll decide in the next few days,” said Gary Greenstin, Datsyuk’s agent. “We’ll make a decision. Pavel wants to play.”

As much as this is an opportunity for NHL players to continue playing and make money to provide for their families during the lockout, this is also a great marketing tool for teams abroad who can capitalize on the name power that NHL players provide.

“Mainly I think it’s going to be a lot of additional marketing potential for the league and hockey itself as a game,” KHL vice-president Ilya Kochevrin said recently. “The stars bring additional attention … to a lot of people who probably don’t consider hockey the sport of choice.

One of the biggest names teams would love to have is Sidney Crosby, who has not yet tipped his hand regarding his lockout plans, but could end up in Russia or Switzerland according to reports.

Another hot commodity would be last season’s Rocket Richard trophy winner Steven Stamkos, who recently stated that playing in Europe is an option he has thought about and could pursue if the lockout lingers on.

“I’ve made a call to my agent and that’s something we’ve talked about, and we have some options,” Stamkos said last week. “We’ll see what happens, but I’m sure every player around the league has thought about it, talked to other players about it, talked to their agents and families.”

Many younger players, especially those who did not go through the lockout and subsequent cancelled season seven years ago, could take a little more to see how negotiations between the NHL and NHLPA are progressing before deciding on a course of action. And, as Stamkos stated, they will talk to other players about their experiences overseas last time around.

“A lot of guys went over last time and played and enjoyed it,” said Ottawa Senators forward Jason Spezza. “And I think that message has kind of trickled down.”

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