When the NHL‘s collective bargaining agreement expired and triggered a lockout, the exodus of players began almost immediately. The KHL is a popular destination for players like Evgeni Malkin, Lubomir Visnovsky and Nikolai Kulemin, but other players like Anze Kopitar, Jason Spezza and Raphael Diaz are seeking out play time in Sweden, Switzerland, Germany and the Czech Republic.
One would assume that these European teams would be thrilled to have NHL-caliber talent join their ranks, even if only temporarily. The money they’ll take in from having even more people go to games to see some of the biggest players in the sport is nothing but good, right?
Szymon Szemberg, who describes himself on his Twitter as the “European record holder in lost night sleeps, listening to or watching Montreal Canadiens games 2AM-5AM Euro time,” tweets about all sorts of international hockey. He was a must follow during the World Championship in May and has recently been tweeting about Olympic qualifiers, KHL games and other hockey news, sometimes in Swedish, mostly in English.
He recently explained that the influx of NHLers seeking temporary employment in Europe has a downside–and a pretty hefty one at that.
“Given the many announcements on Euro signings of locked-out players, there is probably a conception that Euro club GMs, fans enjoy this. As far as most are concerned, it’s not the case. True fans enjoy following the NHL parallel with following their Euro teams,” he said. (This is true–I personally know someone who follows the Boston Bruins from Germany, even though the time difference is brutal.)
Here’s where it gets worrisome and costly for some European teams.
“Many GMs fear an arms race which they simply can’t afford. 95% of all Euro clubs don’t have a budget for new salaries [or] insurance. Many Euro clubs spend 80% or more of revenue on player salaries. Swiss clubs Kloten [Flyers] & Ambri [-Piotta] spent over 100% of revenue on salaries. Many GMs are under enormous pressure from players, agents, media, fans to sign NHLers and they don’t have any responsibility for finances. So most true fans and responsible hockey people in Europe hope that the conflict will end very soon,” Szemberg said.
When asked how that’s a sustainable business model, Szemberg simply said that it is not and that “many clubs [are] on the verge of bankruptcy.”
In fact, when Mora IK of the Swedish version of the AHL got Kopitar, which may have been in part due to his brother Gaspar campaigning on his behalf, Szemberg said that the team is going to ask local businesses for support. Presumably that means financial support to help ease the burden of taking on a new Stanley Cup champion and the kind of financial compensation he might desire.
Considering the fact that the NHL has canceled medical and dental insurance plans for its players and their families retroactive to Sept. 16, if players do seek to play for teams with unsustainable financial models, things could get very complicated for them. They could be faced with having to buy private insurance or cobbling together some other option because insurance is a necessity.
The NHLPA has offered to step in and cover the cost of premiums, though, for its members. This also happened in the 1994 and 2004 lockouts. The union does advise players to get even more insurance if they go play overseas. Players have to get their own disability insurance too.
Then, of course, there’s the fact that getting IIHF transfer cards to play overseas is reportedly taking a while, just complicating things even more.
All in all, the international play situation is not as sunny as it seems on the surface. Hockey fans and those in the field around the world, not just in North America, are fervently hoping for a quick resolution to the NHL’s labor issues.