Tag Archives: NHLPA

Team Russia shows no sense of decency

This is called sportsmanship at its best.

After Team Canada won the world championship 2015 title in the O2 Arena in Prague, Czech Republic, Sunday, it took the vanquished team quite some time to skate over and accept their silver medals from International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) President René Fasel.

In fact, Fasel had to keep waving at the Russians for almost a minute to convince them to come over and collect what was deservedly theirs.

But that wouldn’t be the end of it.

What happened then was even more shocking. Not surprising: something like that had happened in other, similar situations, too. And it always involved Russian teams in one shape or another. But one would have expected that the Russians would have learnt their lesson by now and not stoop to this kind of scandalous behaviour yet again. When Team Russia captain Ilya Kovalchuk saw the IIHF dignitaries began distributing gold medals to the winners from Canada, he ordered his teammates to leave the ice. He waited by the door to the bench to see that the entire squad leaves.

To their credit, a small group that included Team Russia’s brightest stars, Alexander Ovechkin and Yevgeni Malkin, remained at the blue line. Kovalchuk kept ordering them to leave forthwith, while Ovechkin was gesticulating back that good manners dictate they should stay there till the end of the ceremony. Or, at least, until Team Canada captain Sidney Crosby receives the championship cup and O Canada had been played.

It took about a minute of embarrassing exchanges. But when the fireworks started and the confetti were fired, Kovalchuk skated over and personally forced the remaining Russian players to leave immediately.

That no Russian player stayed to see Crosby and his teammates skating around with the cup is one thing; that they didn’t wait until an orchestra gathered to play O Canada, is another.

Fasel said he was very disappointed with Team Russia’s behaviour. He said he found it perfectly unacceptable and added that the IIHF is going to debate potential punishment. Team Russia’s behaviour showed profound lack of respect for the other team, and Russian Hockey Federation will be asked for an explanation, Fasel told the Russian TASS news agency, adding Team Russia’s behaviour showed not only lack of sportsmanship, it also broke the IIHF’s rules, and for that, the Russian Hockey Federation can expect proper punishment.

Fasel said some Russian players wanted to be sportsmanlike: “We saw Ovechkin and Malkin who tried to stay. It’s the team management and coaching staff who should have made sure nothing like this happened; they were right there, on the ice, at the time.”

Vladislav Tretyak, the former all-world goalie who now serves as Russian Hockey Federation’s president, said it was all a misunderstanding rather than lack of respect: his players even shook Canadian players’ hands, he said.

But former Czech goalie Petr Bříza, who served on the organizing committee, said wherever Team Russia showed up, difficulties would follow.

When they came to Ostrava, instead of staying in a hotel reserved for all teams that played there, the Russians demanded that they be accommodated in Kravaře, an Ostrava suburb. Then, when they saw it took them longer than it took others to get to the ČEZ Arena, they demanded that the organizers provide them with police escort, so their team bus can get to and from the arena breaking all traffic rules.

In fact, Team Russia was scandalized its team bus had to wait at a railway crossing for a train to pass. Organizers in Ostrava started asking publicly whether they should have made the railway change its schedule, and Team Russia dropped the subject.

And, Bříza added, “They brought a few problems with them to Prague, too, issues that hadn’t been here before their arrival. The eight teams that had been here were living side by side quite famously, but then the Russians came and the first thing they did was they blocked off a hallway in the arena and demanded to stay in a different hotel. That created serious security issues for us, and if anything had happened, it would have been linked to the championship, no question. And then, they topped it off with such lack of sportsmanship and respect for others, including the entire event,” Bříza concluded.

It seems it may be useful for the organizers of the forthcoming World Cup (NHL and NHLPA) to remind Team Russia management in advance that there are basic rules of decency and sportsmanship that one should keep in mind even following bitter defeat.

And if they can’t live with it, disinvite them, no matter the star power that the event would lose.

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Lockout in Russia? Let’s hope not, says Kovy

There are a few issues Russian Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) and its player union will have to solve, but not one of them seems to be a catalyst for a lockout.

Thus union president Andrei Kovalenko.

According to the 43-year-old NHL veteran (Quebec Nordiques, Colorado Avalanche, Montreal Canadiens, Edmonton Oilers, Philadelphia Flyers, Carolina Hurricanes and the Boston Bruins), there are no insurmountable issues between the KHL and its player trade union (that’s how it prefers to call itself). And Kovalenko has been his union’s president since its inception in 2009.

“Our collective agreement expires after this season,” Kovalenko told Russian newspaper Sport-Express, “but we hope to have a new deal done by the end of next April.”

There will be changes in the KHL’s structure, what with the addition of several new clubs, including Finland’s Jokerit Helsinki and, possibly, Lada Togliatti. That, the KHL has been saying, would mean an increase in the number of regular season games.

As it is, the KHL has three clubs from outside of the former Soviet Union: Czech Republic’s Lev Praha, Slovakia’s Slovan Bratislava, and Medvescak Zagreb from Croatia. There are also several clubs situated in the former Soviet republics, such as Dinamo Riga in Latvia, Ukraine’s HC Donbass, and so on. That puts a strange emphasis on one of the trade union demands: cut the number of foreigners permitted on each roster.

There’s one more issue here that can have an impact. It would be a political impact of major proportions: the European Union looks askance at limitations put upon its member states’ citizens seeking employment in other countries that belong to EU. A few years ago, it told European soccer’s governing body, UEFA, to clean its act or else. Nobody spelt the “else,” as nobody needed to: the UEFA fell in line forthwith.

Granted, Russia is NOT an EU member. But the Czechs are. And the Slovaks are. And so are the Finns and the Croats. As it is, the KHL is skating on thin ice. It has European Union-based clubs as its members. These clubs now will have to decide by whose rules they are going to play. The KHL’s? They wouldn’t be able to run their business in their home countries. The EU’s? What’s the KHL going to say?

There is, of course, a bit of a way out: they can always claim they’re foreign entities, only playing under a Russian league’s banner. To them, if anyone is a foreigner, it’s the Russians.

If this goes through, lawyers on all sides will have a field day.

Everybody concerned says the relationship between the league and its union is not as antagonistic as seems to be the case between the NHL and its players association (NHLPA). After all, Kovalenko makes no secret of his close cooperation with league president Alexander Medvedev and sundry top league officials. In fact, some contemporaries view this relationship askance. It resembles the bosom friendship between then-NHLPA Executive Director Alan Eagleson and then NHL President John Ziegler too closely for comfort, they say.

But still, disagreements do pop up from time to time.

“I don’t think we’re facing a lockout like the NHL did,” Kovalenko says. “But we do see certain important issues that our players view as the principle of how to proceed in the future.”

Such as?

“Such as the number of games,” says Kovalenko. “We conceded a few points to the league during the Olympic season, but we’d rather not see these things repeated ever again.”

More specifically?

“Training camps opened July 15 for this season,” Kovalenko explains. “We had to move the date by about two weeks (because of the Olympics). We’d like to see it included in the new CBA that training camps will not open before July 20, just as it used to be. Our members don’t like trips that last too long, either. This season, clubs play four away games in a row. That’s because the schedule was compressed due to the Olympics. We would prefer three-game road trips as a maximum.”

But if there is one issue the league and its trade union haven’t been able to see eye to eye, it’s the issue of foreigners on team rosters.

League president Medvedev has hinted some time ago that the limit imposed on clubs would be raised for next season from five to seven. Russian hockey federation didn’t like the idea, and Kovalenko isn’t a particular fan, either: “To include more foreigners would be counterproductive. The foreigners would form cliques and clans within teams, endangering clubs’ team spirit,” Kovalenko argues.

Well, speaking of spirits, Kovalenko knows whereof he speaks: whenever he used to be on an NHL team with another Russian (or, Heaven forbid, more Russians), these guys would stick together even if they hated each other’s guts. And never mind such infamous affairs as Kovalenko’s overnight disappearance on an Edmonton Oilers’ California swing, with his countryman Boris Mironov appearing for the club’s bus departure even later, claiming he had been trying to find Kovalenko. In vain, of course.

But that’s water under the bridge now, and Kovalenko is strictly against players forming cliques and clans within their teams.

His other point seems more valid: “We have to think about bringing up our own young players. Personally, I would prefer a limit of two to three foreigners per team, and those selected based on their top levels of play,” Kovalenko insists.

That kind of thinking limps behind the NHL by a couple of decades. The North American league has adopted, however grudgingly, Glen Sather’s old dictum: “I don’t care where the guy’s coming from. He may be coming from Timbuktu, but if he knows how to play hockey, he’s my kind of guy.”

Kovalenko warns, recognizing he’s talking about the NHL two decades ago: “Only those foreigners who were tops could play. If they were on the same level as the locals, clubs preferred to have Canadians or Americans playing for them.”

This is a sore point for the Russian psyche: they are (and have been for the longest time) of the view that they are the world power. While they might be getting used to sad fact their importance in the world economy (and consequently politics) has shrunk somewhat, they wouldn’t accept even a hint of similar developments so far as their hockey goes.

So, where the debates over limits on foreigners will end is anybody’s guess.

And then there are a few minor issues. Such as how to dress properly for the game. Wearing your sweater tucked into your pants is frowned upon in the NHL, and Russian fans read in their media again and again how their beloved Alexander Ovechkin has suffered. The KHL uses a similar rule, except here, we’re talking about fines. SKA St. Petersburg is a prime example of how it works in the KHL. “The club had to pay four fines for four breaks in one single game,” says Kovalenko, with righteous indignation.

Except, the fines get steeper with each infraction. Where the first fine would come at 10,000 rubles (about $330 Canadian), the infractions that follow double the fines: 40,000 rubles follow 20,000 rubles, and so on, you get the picture. “Our players don’t like it,” says Kovalenko. “It may happen that the player is innocent, he just hadn’t noticed. We would like to convince the league, and the referees, that this isn’t an issue to lose sleep over.”

He’s right there.

But what’s going to happen if Russian players decide they want to get bigger pieces of the pie than they are getting now? That they want to change their league throughout, an astute business proposition as it is and has been, into something resembling a co-operative rather than a corporation?

Nobody would answer this question for the record, but – anonymously – all those asked agreed: this is Russia, not America, we’re talking about. We pamper our players better than Hollywood pampers its celebrities. What are the players supposed to do in return? Why, nothing spectacular. Just play hockey and keep their mouths shut.

NHL, NHLPA to face the world hand in hand

This is bartering at its best: we gave you the Olympics, and now, we expect goods of same or better value in return.

Here it is: the NHL and its union, the NHLPA, are huddled in New York this week. They are preparing their joint talking points for continuing negotiations with the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF).

The World Cup of Hockey, one of the major topics of discussion, is a given. Expect it to happen in 2016.

Except, nothing is as simple as it looks. For example: the IIHF seems to be of the view that early fall, preferably pre-season early fall (or late summer, preferably pre-season late summer) would be the best time to stage the World Cup. Yet, there happens to be a North American school of thought that would rather see the event take place midway through the season. Here’s the logic: we are interrupting our league’s proceedings in February 2014, just as the battles for the Stanley Cup playoffs begin to heat up. It costs us money (and it cost league programmers a few grey hairs, too, to compress an 82-game schedule so as not to lose a single game and still make sure playoffs begin in April). And we’ve done all that just to send our stars to somewhere in the middle of nowhere in Russia. That’s an aggravation for us more than anything, and it’s costing us money. Having the World Cup midway through the season would help us recoup those losses and then some.

The Olympic Games are the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) cash cow. That august body splits its income with international associations (such as the IIHF), and they, in turn, share it with national federations that are their backbone. The NHL is not an international association. It’s not a national federation, either. It can hardly expect Hockey Canada or USA Hockey to go insane all of a sudden and share their shares with the NHL. When the NHL sees just the broadcasting contracts the IOC has managed to impose all over the world (and never mind the tactics used to achieve that), the league must be going bonkers: all that money, and none of it comes our way! We give them our stars’ prestige, and what do we get in return? Feel free to fill in whichever four-letter word comes to mind here.

In any case, no wonder the NHL and the NHLPA would prefer to have the World Cup staged midway through the season: it might maximize their income more than considerably.

There are at least two options to be debated about how to split the World Cup income. One plan lets the NHL and NHLPA keep their (major) share and let the IIHF divide the rest, whether it be among all of its national federations or only those that sent teams to the event. The other plan would see the NHL and NHLPA keep their (major) share and split the rest among the federations that sent teams to the event, with the calculation based on how far this or that particular team had made it. This option would leave IIHF out of the equation completely, something the NHL and the NHLPA would have no issues with. The other side would not be too enthusiastic about it.

Before even beginning to debate the issue of money, the IIHF cries in response: but we’ve got a world championship in May!

Oh yeah? comes a cynical reply. How about NOT having it during the years the World Cup of Hockey is on? The existing proposals mention either every two years or, and that is more probable, every four years: two years after and two years before Olympic Games.

Here’s the rub: world championship happens to be the IIHF’s cash cow. It doesn’t have to share the loot with anybody but its national federations. Not a cent goes IOC’s way. Again: the NHL is NOT a national federation.

The NHL is not altogether pleased with this arrangement, either. It’s of the view that allowing its players to take part in the world championship helps enhance the event’s credibility. Enhanced credibility equals increased income. Yes, the players who go to take part in the world championship belong to clubs that didn’t make the playoffs or were eliminated in the first round, preferably in four games. Still, they are NHL players, and some of them are genuine stars. What’s in it for us, argue the NHL and the NHLPA, but risks? If a star player gets injured, fine, he gets money from his insurance, but what if he’s not available to his NHL team for a few months next season? Stars bring butts into arena seats. A star’s absence costs the NHL (and, by extension, the NHLPA) money. Well?

Besides, as an aside, the NHL and NHLPA are not at all satisfied with the fact that insurance coverage and sundry matters related to it differ considerably from national federation to national federation. They would like to see something that holds valid for everybody concerned.

There’s another proposal making rounds for these talks. It’s dear to the IIHF, while the NHL and the NHLPA are not so sure. Not yet, at least. It’s the idea to copy the beautiful game (association football, soccer for the uninitiated) and put together something to be known as Champions Cup. Its version on the pitch attract incredible crowds (and broadcast audiences, on television, radio and, these days, in new media). That’s a lot of money.

Why not go for it, full speed ahead? Again, there are numerous issues about competences, responsibilities and shares, and then, there’s one overwhelming fear: what if the Stanley Cup champion loses a game to, say, Lithuania? What’s the public going to say? How will it play in Peoria? as the cliché goes.

The NHL (with NHLPA’s approval, it seems) has already told the IIHF not to even bother dreaming about the league’s participation in the 2018 Olympic Games in South Korea. Let’s have the World Cup, instead, the two groups say. Having the Olympic Games in South Korea does nothing to enhance the worldwide appeal of hockey, they seem to be saying, but having the World Cup in markets that cherish the game, now, that changes our views on international cooperation beyond belief.

Speaking of markets, the NHL (and the NHLPA) is not too sure that staging season-openers overseas (in Europe or in Japan) is the way to go. Financial returns have been far below overwhelming, and the players are not too happy about coming back and plunging, heads first, into the season without much time to adjust to the jet lag of at least six hours.

It’s going to be a long, complicated and difficult path before the NHL and the NHLPA reach a binding agreement with the IIHF. The interesting thing at the moment is that the league and its union are writing a joint songbook so they can sing in unison. The other interesting (and as important) thing is that neither side has mentioned it’s all about sports. There might be an occasional expression of trust that this or that helps enhance the game and spread its popularity, but it’s always quickly linked to revenues that this or that might bring in.

Well, at least they are sincere about it.

Emir Umarov: We will attack at Sochi

When the NHLPA demanded assurances from the International Olympic Committee that the Sochi Olympics next February will take place in a safe environment, its negotiators knew whereof they spoke: the games were in serious danger. They still are.

Doku Umarov, leader of insurgents operating in the nearby Caucasus mountains, has ordered his faithful to prepare for attacks against the event.

Umarov and his group have been fighting for years to split the northern Caucasus region from Russia, so far without much success.

“The Russians want to have it right over our ancestors’ remains, over the bones of many, many Muslims buried in our territory by the Black Sea,” Russian journalists quoted Umarov as saying earlier this year. “We’ve got to stop them no matter what methods we use.”

Umarov calls himself Emir, using a title of high office adopted throughout the Muslim world. In its original, it means “commander,” “general,” or “prince.” Emirs are usually considered high-ranking Sheikhs, but in monarchic states, the term is also used for Princes.

Umarov has claimed his group’s responsibility for several recent terrorist attacks. Some of them took place deep within Russia proper. They included the suicide attack at the Domodedovo airport near Moscow more than a year ago. That attack claimed at least 40 victims.

From the historical point of view, Caucasus tribes used to occupy precisely those areas that include Olympic sites. They were pushed away by Tsarist Russian armies. According to historians, at least eight million people died during the battles for the Caucasus mountains only during the 19th century. That would constitute about a half of the entire indigenous population of the region, plus more than 100,000 Tsarist Russian soldiers.

Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, has ordered last February that his country’s security and military forces in the area go on the highest level of alert.

According tu several sources, one of the assurances that went a long way to persuade the NHLPA to eventually agree to its members’ Olympic participation, was an order to place units of “Spetsnaz” in the area. “Spetznaz” is an abbreviation for “spetsialjnoie naznachenie” (special tasks). These are Russian army’s elite units that somewhat resemble the U.S. Green Berets and Navy Seals, and the British SAS, except that the Russian take the cake so far as ruthlessness is concerned.

About a year before the opening of the Sochi Olympics, an explosion at the traffic police control stop at North-Caucasus autonomous republic of Dagestan killed four police officers. Russian soldiers would later track down and shoot to death four persons suspected of the attack. No public reports are available to confirm whether the four suspects have really been the perpetrators of the Dagestan attack.

Russia has been battling the northern Caucasus islamist insurgents for the last 10 years, since the time it managed to wrestle the control of Chechnya, whose separatists it had fought in two wars for the last two decades. Sochi is situated at the western-most area of the Caucasus region. Violent incidents in the area have been reported almost daily during the last few years.

In May 2012, Russian secret service, the FSB (successor to the KGB) reported it thwarted several Caucasus terrorists’ plans to attack the Olympics at Sochi. FSB said then that it found and seized 10 weapons storage facilities in nearby Abkhasia. They found hand-held ground-to-air missiles, grenade launchers, flame throwers, guns, hand grenades and explosives. The agency said the weaponry was supposed to be transferred to secret caches in and around Sochi. FSB said at the time that Umarov was the mastermind of this complex supply network. It also said he was in close co-operation with the secret services of the nearby republic of Georgia, an accusation the government of Georgia has steadfastly rejected.

It doesn’t help matters, either, that Georgia itself has been involved in conflicts with Russia over the nearby region of Ossetia.

And, of course, it doesn’t help matters, either, that nobody knows whether these were all weaponry stores the Caucasus terrorist groups have prepared, and whether anybody knows anything about weapons already smuggled into the Sochi region.

The NHLPA would not meet a request for comment on the matter. This would be understandable. We’re talking about delicate security matters, with lives of innocent civilians at risk.

One question remains open: is the NHL’s participation at Sochi worth the risk? Considering that talks have been going on about other international events, with the NHL and NHLPA getting the biggest chunk of the pie, unlike in the Olympic arrangement, it’s the same song and dance all over again: this is NOT about sports. This is about money.

Is the NHL staring another labour stoppage in the face?

Will there be an NHL season starting in the fall of 2012? Or will there not be an NHL season starting in the fall of 2012?

While there have been no official, for-the-record contacts between the league and its players’ association (NHLPA) yet, this is bound to change by the time the All-Star Game rolls by, Sunday, January 29, in Ottawa.

Between now and then, there have been unmistakable signs that the path to the new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) is going to be wet from all that blood, sweat and tears both sides are going to pour.

It remains to be seen whether the fans will have a reason to cry or rejoice. The former seems more likely.

The first sign: the NHLPA is of the view the time has come to change the competition committee, one of the babies conceived during the last lockout. How precisely would you imagine it? came a polite enquiry from the league. If there was an answer, it must have been lost in the mail.

But there are issues that will be terribly difficult to overcome, and it’s tough to predict now whether there could be any compromise on any of them.

The NHLPA keenly watches what their basketball brethren, a.k.a. NBAPA, are doing. Having refused a 50-50 split in basketball-related revenue as the basis to calculate salary caps, the NBAPA is seriously looking to disband so its members are free to sue the league for breaking the anti-trust legislation. They may have a point there, except, if they do this, it would be a perfectly stinking hypocrisy: if a player wants to join the NBA, he’s got to be a member of the NBAPA in good standing. Is that monopolist or is that monopolist?

Do the NBA players actually care for their fans?

Still, the NHLPA is in permanent contact with the basketball unionists, keeping close tabs on developments there. Are they doing it just out of sheer pleasure of learning?

The NHL can make a very good case for itself by saying that, while, overall, league hockey-related revenues having been going up, the number of teams in dire straights has been increasing, too. Atlanta’s gone, Phoenix is close to going, Columbus is bleeding not only on the ice, both Florida teams are giving tickets away for free and counting days until Canadian retirees drop by for their regular winter holidays so they can at least sell some of the tickets, Minnesota isn’t too healthy, Dallas is hoping its new owner will be willing to invest, expecting at least some return, and the three California teams aren’t prime examples of economic health, either.

Of course, the logical reply would be: well then, why did you put those teams in such inhospitable areas in the first place? That it helped increase NHLPA’s membership? So what? It also brought cash in admittance fees to the existing owners.

The players are perfectly livid about the so-called escrow account into which they have to contribute a certain percentage of their salaries, just in case the NHL (or one of its teams) is sinking. Sure, they get some of the money back a season later, but they can’t help it: they just can’t understand why players’ contributions should be keeping alive clubs that shouldn’t have been born at all. That’s their view, and there’s something to it. So far as players are concerned, if the league has expanded the way it has, it should be the league who improves upon the system of revenue sharing, not the players.

The league, on the other hand, is of the view that the players have got it made, and that they’ve got it made on the backs of their poor employers. The players’ salaries are eating more than 54 per cent of the league’s hockey-related revenue, and that’s really altogether too much to swallow, quite a few of the owners say. To open the negotiations, they would be willing to offer a split that would see 47 per cent going to the players, the rest to them. Fat chance, of course, but that’s what you’ve got negotiations for: at the end, they would agree on a 50-50 split, giving everyone a chance to feel the pain of compromising, and share it.

Here’s a theory of games and economic behaviour element that comes into play. There is a recognized dictum amongst professional police officers that once a person murders somebody, that murderer finds it much easier to pull the trigger again, next time. This kind of behavioural pattern has a Latin name in which precedent plays a major role. We had a lockout just a few years ago, and the NHL survived. A precedent if there ever was one.

Another sore point: NHL owners just hate the fact their players have got guaranteed contracts. The NFL model (no guarantees, and if we don’t like you, tough sledding, Bubba) would make them feel much better. Who wants to wager on the players giving guaranteed contracts up? The owners can try to offer a sweetener: fine, your contracts, including no-trade or no-move clauses, will be guaranteed. To a degree. Once a player asks for a trade, though, the no-trade or no-move clause gets waived, and the player will go where the team finds a trade partner who suits the team, rather than the player. Can you see THIS happening?

Accepted wisdom has it that the forthcoming CBA negotiations will be tougher than what we had experienced in 2004. Why? Because NHLPA’s executive director Donald Fehr’s record says so.

It, of course, says no such thing. Yes, Donald Fehr was instrumental in several labour stoppages when a Major Baseball union Pooh-Bah, that’s true. But those were different times, a different game, different league issues, different owners. The fact it had been about a Collective Bargaining Agreement just as it is now is the only feature these situations have in common.

Donald Fehr must be aware, just as any major professional sports league should be, that the demographics of fandom have been changing rapidly in the last few years, and that the change has been resembling a downward spiral more than anything else. Reasons for this trend have been varied, and none of them, at least thus far, described as paramount. Randomly speaking, you can define those reasons as signs of general economic malaise worldwide and, consequently, lower disposable incomes amongst potential fans. Scientists have also observed that in the era of new media in general and social media in particular, younger generations’ interests have veered away from passive participation in professional sports. Some case studies also indicate that an increasing number of members of the general population are positively angry about top professional athletes’ remuneration demands. Descriptions of animals linked to words that describe greed have become norm rather than exceptions. Professional sports franchise owners who demand taxpayer participation in building new facilities for their clubs have been increasingly becoming objects for ridicule.

To sum up: times have changed. Professional sports might become (nobody says “will become,” not yet, anyhow) relics of the past before the first three decades of this century are gone.

So, if Donald Fehr plans to intimidate the NHL, and the owners let him, both sides will be stepping on an unmarked minefield.

Let’s hope they are smart enough NOT to do it. But let’s not mortgage our homes on it, either.

Oilers have a dilemma: what to do with their budding star?

Thursday, October 28, 2011 will be D-Day for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Barring injuries or healthy scratches, the home game against Alexander Ovechkin-led Washington Capitals will be his ninth in the Oilers silks. Will he be hopping on the charter plane right after the game, for a quick road trip to Colorado to face the Avalanche the next night, or will he be hitting the road, to drive about 150 km south of Edmonton, to rejoin his junior team in Red Deer?

It’s not going to be his call, even though his efforts between now and then will have major influence on the coaching staff’s (and team management’s) decision-making process.

The debate isn’t only about what would serve Nugent-Hopkins’s development better: remaining in the NHL, or returning to the WHL. The debate is also about what is better for the Oilers.

From the outside looking in, it seems to be a no-brainer: keep the guy. After all, what has he got to learn in junior? It’s the same situation that developed with Taylor Hall last season. Talented like nobody’s business, but … Fans met a suggestion that both Hall and the club would be better served with Hall down in junior with derision. Of course, the club’s options were limited: the Oilers couldn’t send Hall to the minors for a few weeks of learning the professional hockey ropes. The Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) wouldn’t permit it. Perhaps the NHL should try to raise this subject when they begin negotiations about a new CBA with the NHL Players’ Association (NHLPA) in less than a year.

And so are the Oilers’ options limited this year, too.

Then there is the option Craig MacTavish used during the 2002-2003 season with a player about as talented and creative as Hall and Nugent-Hopkins: Ales Hemsky. Realizing that he had a gem on his hands, MacTavish decided to ease Hemsky in, rather than throwing him to the wolves. Hemsky was a healthy scratch for a few games here and a few games there, recording 59 games played that season, eventually.

Hemsky at the time was not absolutely pleased with sitting in the press box, but he kept his mouth shut, as a good soldier.

What happens next is not so much about young Nugent-Hopkins’s hockey prowess as it is about his mental and emotional strength. As Jeeves liked to say, it’s all about the psychology of the individual. Thus far, Nugent-Hopkins has proven he’s got most of the tools that a top-notch player needs to survive. Faceoffs are the one glaring omission in his repertoire. Summed up: he’s got most of the tools, but he hasn’t got his toolbox yet. Granted, Nugent-Hopkins seems aware of this shortcoming and, judging by the improvement in the faceoff circle during the game against Nashville (he won 42 per cent) as compared to the game against Vancouver just a few days earlier (a measly 18 per cent), he might become quite competent in this field before the season’s done, too. Of course, he faced better opposition in Vancouver’s faceoff men, too.

This is all very well. But you can bet your last loonie that after the hattrick against Vancouver, the first one of his professional career, 29 teams around the NHL told their video people to get the tape (or DVD) of that particular game pronto, and isolate young Nugent-Hopkins so that coaches can start devising tactics how to stop this budding star. What does this mean? Nothing much, only that Nugent-Hopkins is bound to find the going to get much tougher from now onwards. Goals will stop going in in bushels, his passes will be intercepted, you name it, it’s going to be frustrating.

Nugent-Hopkins will either get nervous, frustrated, even, throwing his arms up in anger, or he will come up with solid answers.

Here’s an example: when Wayne Gretzky saw opposition figured out some of his tricks, he came up with new ones, and when he had a wide enough repertoire, he would start mixing the tricks up, to keep catching the opposition off-guard. His Edmonton Oilers’ former teammate and later, captaincy successor, Mark Messier, had a patented outlet pass from his own zone, not a bad play but, alas, one the opposition figured out. Still, Messier persisted, causing a few unpleasantly dangerous situations for his team in the process.

Of course, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is not Wayne Gretzky. As Edmonton Sun’s Terry Jones quoted Rexall Sports’ president of hockey operations Kevin Lowe, Nugent-Hopkins’s playing style reminds him more of Dale Hawerchuk. A smart player, one who didn’t mind getting his nose dirty while operating near his opposition’s goal.

Still, psychologically, Nugent-Hopkins should pick up Gretzky’s ability to creatively change his ways whenever the situation called for it. That is going to be the toughest part of his development.

Now, Nugent-Hopkins has got a smart head on his neck. Just as his last year’s predecessor Taylor Hall has. Judging just by what they said before and after being drafted No. 1, their words didn’t sound like well-rehearsed clichés. In any case, what they said sounded better than Alexandre Daigle’s infamous words, when drafted by the Ottawa Senators in 1993. Remember? He said he was happy to be going as No. 1 because who remembers the No. 2 draftee, anyway? That particular year, No. 2 was Chris Pronger (and Paul Kariya, by the way, went as No. 4). On the day following his first hattrick, Nugent-Hopkins admitted it was exciting, but now, he was looking to get ready for the Nashville game, and anyhow, he’s got this nine-game or bust deal hanging over his head as the sword of Damocles, and besides, what’s a hattrick worth if it didn’t help the team win.

Sounded like a pretty well reasonable man, wise beyond his age, didn’t it?

Still, actions speak louder than words, and – thus far, at least – we’ve been experiencing what’s known as the “novelty effect.”

Will the grind and the increasing one-on-one coverage by other teams’ best defensive crews slow Nugent-Hopkins (and his development) down, or will he use it as a challenge, coming out as the Oilers’ scoring machine for the year?

Nobody knows the future. What we do know is that Taylor Hall, in a fine effort to prove he can play with the adults and be their equal, at least, overextended himself and got injured. An ankle injury stopped his first season as an Oiler at 65 games played. The word “if” is highly unpopular in the theory of games, but: Hall was tied for second in team scoring last year, with 42 points. Could he have got more if he didn’t get injured? Would he have got more if he didn’t get injured? Absolutely yes, on both counts.

Would he (or could he) avoid the season-ending injury if Tom Renney went Craig MacTavish’s way and didn’t play Hall night in and night out? Again: who knows? But, to use simplified statistics, if Hall had played fewer games, the probability of an injury would have been lesser.

Does the same apply to Nugent-Hopkins? Yes, it does, and a full 100 per cent, too.

Professional athletes like playing (running, jumping, whatever their sport). A laudable, praiseworthy, even, approach. Hockey players are no different. And that’s why their teams employ coaching staffs: to tame these young colts to make sure they’re ready when the big race comes.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is a player who is exciting to watch. Here’s wishing for his, his club’s and, most importantly, his and his club’s fans’ pleasure that he stays healthy and exciting for as long as possible. Even after the “novelty effect” has worn off.

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