Donald Fehr on NHLPA exodus to Europe: ‘What anybody else would do if locked out’

Over 40 NHL players have signed overseas during the first week of the lockout, ranging from Alex Ovechkin in the KHL to Tomas Tatar in Slovakia. More players should continue the exodus as the Swedish Elite League lifts its restrictions depending on an appeal of an anti-trust ruling) and as the lockout continues.

This repeats the trend from 2004-05, when about 380 players left to play overseas as the locked-out season was cancelled. From author Paul D. Staudohar, in his Dec. 2005 Monthly Labor Review piece on the lockout:

The salaries of these players were far less than what they made in the NHL, although a few lucky ones did fairly well. For instance, Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards each signed for $1.5 million with Ak Bars Kazan, a team from the autonomous Russian Republic of Tatarstan that plays in the 16-team Russian Superleague. Lecavalier was scheduled to make $4.4 million and Richards about $2.6 million for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Hundreds of players left for Europe in the previous lockout … but why have so many, and so many prominent ones, left this early? Before a single regular-season game's been spiked?

Lecavalier didn't sign with Kazan until Nov. 4, 2004. Richards was Nov. 8. Saku Koivu signed in Finland on Oct. 21.

Then again, Joe Thornton and Rick Nash both signed with Davos of the Swiss League in Summer 2004, where they're playing again now. Ilya Kovalchuk signed in Kazan on Aug. 22, 2004.

"There was a continual exodus, but the numbers shot up around the Thanksgiving time frame, when players realized it was going to extended," recalled Keith Primeau, who was a locked out member of the Philadelphia Flyers in 2004 but opted to remain in North America.

So what's with the early exit for NHL players this time 'round? And does it mean anything for player solidarity during the lockout?

NHLPA chief Donald Fehr has an explanation.

Fehr appeared on Team 1040 in Vancouver on Friday (listen here) and was asked about the number of players leaving for Europe before the NHL regular season had been affected by the lockout.

Said Fehr:

"The most easy way to understand it is this: The owners have been talking about this lockout for months and months and months and months. They had a year the last time the players were locked out. They had a lockout in basketball with the same format. They had a lockout in football with the same format. So when the owners say they're going to do it again unless you make another series of enormous concessions on dollars, on player contracting rights and all those other things, they believe them.

"Therefore, they're looking in that situation to see what else can be done. It's what anybody else would do if you're locked and can't go to work."

In other words, the message to players was: The lockout was inevitable, the season's at risk again, so don't waste your time waiting for a resolution that never came seven years ago. Which is as bleak as it sounds.

Of course, there are other factors, like previous connections with teams overseas and national ties to homelands. It does help that NHL players have a few more options this time. The majority of players who left as soon as the lockout was announced went to the KHL, which is a more lucrative and geographically vast league than the former Russian Superleague.

The floodgates are open in Europe; previous predictions that NHL players may not leave with the same frequency as in the 2004-05 lockout may no longer hold true.

We're just over a week into the lockout, and three of the NHL's top four offensive stars — Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos and Evgeni Malkin — are overseas or, in the case of Stamkos, nearly there.

Left unsaid by Fehr: That this quick exodus shows the NHL players have options and, more to the point, are ready for the long-haul on this lockout. Question is, will that resolve be shared by NHL players that aren't getting million-dollar deals in Sweden and Russia?