NHL players rush for jobs in Europe during lockout
Sabres defenceman Christian Ehrhoff is the first NHL player to sign with a German Elite League team. Many more could follow. (STAN BEHAL/QMI Agency file photo)
Peter Lee can't keep up with the phone calls and e-mails.
The general manager of the Berlin Eisbaeren (Polar Bears) of the German Elite League estimated Tuesday he has been contacted by agents for more than 30 NHL players who want to ply their trade overseas during the lockout.
"There's lots of interest, that's for sure," said Lee, coming off a German league championship last spring.
The lockout is entering only Day 4, but the players haven't wasted any time trying to find work and there is a rush for jobs. Already at least 10 officially have signed overseas and that list will get longer as the days pass.
While Sweden has blocked teams from signing locked-out NHLers, Russia, Switzerland and the Czech league are welcoming them with open arms. Christian Ehrhoff of the Buffalo Sabres is the only NHL player in the German league, having agreed to sign with Krefeld.
Lee is taking a wait and see approach.
"I have mixed feelings: It's nice to get these players but you don't know how long they're going to be around," he said. "Short-term it may not be bad as long as you don't fill up your team with these players. That could end up being bad."
With nine import spots -- and two more available in case of injury -- the league has plenty of room for NHLers. Teams have to be careful, though, because the import cards are not transferable.
That means if Lee signs, say, centre Jason Spezza and the Ottawa Senator returns to the NHL in November if the CBA is settled, the Eisbaeren have burned an import card.
The bigger issue for both sides is the massive cost of insurance.
During the previous lockout in 2004-05, players weren't carrying huge deals. For example, it will cost in excess of $100,000 a month for Rangers winger Rick Nash to insure all -- or part -- of his five-year deal remaining at $7.8 million per-season.
The belief is Ehrhoff -- along with Nash and San Jose's Joe Thornton, who both signed in Davos, Switzerland -- are helping their clubs by picking up some insurance costs.
Boston-based agent Matt Keator said players need to be careful.
"It's a risk/reward thing," said Keator, who represents Bruins defenceman Zdeno Chara. "The risk is (if) you get injured and you're not 100% when you come back or you're not deemed fit to play then you don't get paid (by your NHL team) when you come back. You have insurance to back you up ...
"The reward is that you get to stay in shape, stay sharp and hit the ground running when (the NHL) starts again."
A Montreal Canadiens No. 1 pick in 1976 and one of the top scorers in history with the OHL's Ottawa 67's, Lee is in a different position. His team is owned by the Anschutz Entertainment Group, the owner of the Los Angeles Kings.
That hasn't stopped him from getting NHL players before.
Lee signed Erik Cole during the previous lockout while the winger was with the Carolina Hurricanes. Cole was a big contributor and helped Berlin win a championship.
"Some guys want to get better," Lee said. "If I look at where Erik Cole was before he got here and where he was after he left, it ended up being a good experience for him.
"There are a lot of guys who said it did Nash and Thornton a world of good to keep playing (during the 2004-05 lockout)."
NHL players are looking for salaries of up to $300,000 to play in Europe, with most of that money covering insurance costs.
"Guys are coming over here because they want to play," Lee said. "I don't think guys are coming over here to make money and pay the bills because I don't think that's realistic."
Some NHLers who have signed to play overseas during the lockout
- Evgeni Malkin (Pittsburgh), Russia
- Sergei Gonchar (Ottawa), Russia
- Jaromir Jagr (Dallas), Czech
- Alexei Ponikarovsky (Winnipeg), Russia
- Tomas Plekanec (Montreal), Czech Republic
- Logan Couture (San Jose), Switzerland
- Rick Nash (New York Rangers), Switzerland
- Joe Thornton (San Jose), Switzerland
- Ilya Kovalchuk (New Jersey), Russia
- Yannick Weber (Montreal), Switzerland